The Key to Your Future Leadership

Hand the Keys

“Do you know anything about starting a vehicle?” An older women’s voice called out from across the post office parking lot. “Uhhhhmmm yes, a little” I replied, not wanting to admit that I am not the most mechanically gifted individual.

As I walked over to the women’s vehicle to help, I witnessed a parade of older gentlemen standing around with puzzled looks on their faces. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked….”Is it turning over?” “It just won’t start” said a man sitting in the driver’s seat. We’ve tried everything!” “It’s a rental” cried another man, followed by “it’s these keys…they don’t work!”

He then handed me his set of “car keys” that were admittedly unlike most car keys I am familiar with. They were the newer kind, no metal key to be found, just a plastic mechanism that is inserted where a traditional key might fit.  I placed the key fob into it’s not so obvious receptor and turned the ignition. Walla! The engine came roaring to life to the amazement of the senior crowd huddled around me. “Thank you!” cried the woman. “You have no idea how long we have been stranded here!” Feeling somewhat like a hero, I responded with “No problem at all; have a wonderful day” and then walked back to my vehicle.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, it dawned on me. Oh No! That’s going to be me one day! There will come a time when the world around me has changed to such an extent, that I no longer will be able to identify what I don’t know. Sure, I have my current blind spots, yet I do a decent enough job of actively seeking them out and recognizing where I am consciously incompetent. This is different though. Like the elderly people who couldn’t see the car “key” in their hands (no matter how they tried), there will come a day where I will have done things a certain way for so long, that my realm of possibilities will be limited. This will hamper my problem solving abilities, and thus, likely inhibit my ability to lead a team, much less an organization.

This same dynamic is unfolding everyday throughout businesses globally. The speed of change is so rapid that product/service relevance is often fleeting and any chance of sustained market domination is mostly a pipe dream. In fact, “Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).”¹ Why has there been such turnover? While there are many factors that led to each of these company’s demise, I believe there is likely one overarching theme among them all…insufficient innovation stemming from poor succession planning and training.

Innovation is often a young man’s game — the result of abundant energy, a fresh set of eyes, and driving ambition. Thus, if organizations desire greater innovation, it makes sense they would purposefully empower the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, many organizational bureaucracies make it hard for bright young minds to wield any real power. While it is the Millennial who is likely more in touch with the current technology and latest trends, it is still the Boomer or Gen X’er who is making the strategic decisions. Moreover, it’s my experience that companies invest very little (comparatively) in the next generation of leaders versus focusing on the development of the current crop of executives. Many HR Departments balk at the idea of training an entire front line management team in leadership fundamentals, and instead see greater value in focusing those resources on services like senior executive coaching. As a result, it’s the ambitious Millennial manager (now averaging 4 or more direct reports²) who finds herself struggling to lead effectively. With upwards of 75% of the workforce projected to be Millennials by 2030, here are a few ways you can prepare your organization now for the inevitable transition of leadership ahead.

1. Train Managers to be Leaders Early in their Career – Most companies consider leadership fundamentals to either be “a given” or something to be learned on the job over time. Yet, I’ve been privy to work with some outstanding companies that saw the value in training their frontline managers with robust leadership development programs and have witnessed the results of doing so firsthand. It’s about identity. Formal title or position may give someone authority to manage, but learning to lead is a different set of skills. A well designed program (that’s aligned with the organization’s culture) gives the new manager license to try out new behaviors that inspire. Then, by the time they are in a middle management role, they are well practiced at creating an engaged team and they can focus on more complex skill-sets like cross-functional networking and influencing without authority.

2. Coach to the Middle – Why wait until someone is an “executive” to enroll them in executive coaching? I understand there are often budget constraints and most companies don’t have the resources to provide everyone with coaching, yet my experience is that even middle managers identified as “high potentials” are rarely given the opportunity to work with an executive coach. This is puzzling because one-to-one leadership coaching is the single greatest way to increase a person’s leadership capacity. In addition, a 2011 “global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.”³ Setting aside coaching dollars for the next generation of executives just makes sense (plus there are plenty of talented executive coaches willing to work for less than “executive” fees)

3. Create a Culture of Coaching – Speaking of coaching…External executive coaches can do wonderful things for your organization, but training your management team to be great internal coaches is even better. When senior leaders have deep industry experience, an existing positive relationship, and sound coaching skills — young leaders flourish in their development. Yet, many Boomers and Gen X’rs grew up at a time when the skills of professional coaching were still being identified and developed. They may understand giving feedback, performance counseling and mentorship. Yet, the competencies of deep listening vs. offering advice, asking powerful questions that encourage new perspectives, and promoting action and accountability are often foreign to them. All is not lost though. With just a few training workshops and some practice, most senior leaders pick up on these skill-sets quickly.

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