I recently worked with a group of senior executives who had concerns about how to develop the next generation of leaders in their companies. The organizational development speak for this is succession planning. In sports we call this bench strength.
There are reasons that companies resist the investment of time and resources in developing future leaders. For one, there is the fear of increasing the hopes and expectations of employees. This is especially true for small companies. An executive might help a manager get ready for advancement, but there are no slots open, and none anticipated for years into the future. That’s discouraging.
Another barrier involves executives who are insecure about their own positions and therefore thwart the development of potential rivals and replacements. Still other executives simply lack the patience and knack for teaching, coaching and developing future leaders.
Without strong commitment among the full executive team, comprehensive succession planning is easily derailed or deferred.
Perhaps the biggest deterrent to leadership development is overwhelming competition from other initiatives, e.g., reacting to competition, product development, personnel changes and the myriad circumstances that consume our days. True leadership development is not a one-time event, or a one-week course, or a simple conversation. It takes ongoing commitment, follow through and dialogue, not to mention new practices from all participants.
Given the pain of leadership development, one might wonder if it’s worth the effort. So let’s look at the alternative. Without a concerted effort to develop the bench, a company risks serious consequences in the event that a key leader suddenly exits (due to health or other causes). Some insurance companies insist a company have a written succession plan or contingency plan in case of such an event.
Perhaps a greater threat is the stories that go on inside employees’ heads.
“There’s no future here.”
“Nobody here cares what happens to me.”
“If I want career progression, I’ll have to keep changing companies.”
Research by the Gallup organization on 10 million employees over several decades reveals that negative stories like the above correlate to sub-standard productivity, morale and profitability. In such organizations, a mood of complacency and mediocrity can take root in the culture.
When talented, ambitious employees are invited into regular conversations about career growth and development, their commitment to and enthusiasm for the company is strongly enhanced. They feel pride in the company’s accomplishments and tend to have a stronger sense of teamwork. This is a competitive advantage that is hard to beat.
Take a close look at your company. Are leaders encouraged and rewarded for developing and promoting talent? Are good people staying with you for years? Are you readily innovating and growing? Do people seem interested and engaged, or are they punching the clock? It’s not easy to develop future leaders, but it sure beats the heck out of the alternative.