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Do Leadership Skills Decrease With Age? 3 Ways To Maintain Your Leadership Licenseby Zenger Folkman September 23, 2017

 

Most professions have a licensing board that is charged with ensuring that people in that profession maintain and improve their skills. This is true for pharmacists, attorneys, engineers, and physicians.  What if those in leadership positions in every company or public-sector agency were also required to periodically show that they had taken active steps to maintain and improve their leadership skills?

One of the consistently lowest scores Zenger Folkman has found on our 360-degree feedback instruments is the question having to do with practicing self-development.  Most participants will say they aspire to become better leaders.  But when asked if they are overtly doing anything to accomplish that, the answer is typically “No.”  Less than 10 percent of leaders report that they have any personal development plan on which they are working.  For those who have any plan, when faced with any other challenge or demand at work, they acknowledge that their personal development is almost always put behind work demands.

How important is developing your leadership skills?  Let’s consider three perspectives:

1. Career success. A rising star in a Silicon Valley company was talking to a large group of younger managers.  The prime message of his talk was that he had decided early in his work career that every year he would deliberately choose some leadership behavior to improve. On his list were things such as delegation, strategic thinking, rigorous problem-solving, and becoming a better team player.  The audience was struck by this individual’s intense motivation for self-improvement.  Many we talked with were convinced that this had significantly contributed to his rapid rise in the firm.

2. Organizations need it. Whenever executives are asked about the state of their leadership pipeline, they invariably acknowledge their deep concern. They volunteer that the biggest constraint to their firm’s growth and long-term success is the dearth of strong leaders. Surveys consistently confirm that the number one issue facing CEOs is leadership development.As a result, organizations spend large sums of money to achieve it. It is estimated that US corporations spend roughly $50 billion per year on leadership development.

3. Personal satisfaction. Whatever game we are playing, most of us like to win – or at least perform respectably in the contest.  The same holds true for careers in organizations: it is always more fun when you are succeeding.  It is far more satisfying to be a highly respected leader versus one who is experiencing difficulties and receiving criticism from colleagues, bosses, and direct reports.

Do Leaders Generally Improve Over Time? 

On their own, do leaders generally get better over time?  To find out my colleague Joe Folkman and I analyzed data regarding more than 51,000 leaders.  For these leaders, we had 360-degree feedback data consisting of feedback from at least 13 of their colleagues regarding their leadership practices.  This feedback came from their boss, several colleagues, and their direct reports.

The 360-degree feedback instruments measured sixteen leadership competencies.  By combining those together we created an “overall leadership effectiveness” measure.  The table below shows the results by various age groups:

Overall Leadership Effectiveness by Age
Age Mean Percentile Number Participants
25 - 35 61.53 9,577
36 - 40 51.76 8,186
41 - 45 49.73 9,646
46 - 50 48.30 8,900
51 - 55 48.09 7,400
56 - 60 47.39 4,974
61 and over 47.01 2,725

Rather than improving over time, there is a steady decline from age 25 until retirement.

What do organizations offer leaders for their development?

1. Development programs. Most programs generally avoid measures of effectiveness, including improvement over time.

2. Performance appraisals. Appraisals have been an annual event in many companies; however, many firms are in the process of revamping their performance management system.  Traditional appraisals were focused primarily on evaluation and not development.  Newer approaches are focused on improving future performance and not directly on evaluating the leader’s capabilities.

3. Assessments, especially multi-rater feedback or 360-degree feedback. Unfortunately, most companies have a “one and done” process.  Only a few of the most sophisticated organizations have repeated measures, on a 12 to 18 month cycle.  Those firms track the individual leader’s progress.

What We Know About Personal Change

Many people are working on some target of personal change.  It could be to lose weight, or to become more physically fit.  Still others elect to learn a language, or a skill such as skiing.  Whatever the target, we know that success in any of these requires more than a one-time event.  Unless there is a sustained effort, frequent assessments of performance, and an ultimate target, no one should be surprised if no progress is made.

What Should Organizations Do If They Want Better Leaders?

The organization needs to establish an ongoing process of evaluation and feedback, designed to help leaders practice and improve in order to further their development.

There are several ways to provide sustainment and follow-up.  There can be:

• Follow-on development sessions

• Coaching discussions with internal or external coaches

• Periodic articles to read or videos to watch, with discussion

• Repeated 360-degree feedback

• Specific job assignments that require the application of a specific competency

Whatever the activity, the keys to success are continuity, persistence, managerial attention, and emphasis on improvement.

How long has it been since your last leadership behavior checkup?  More than 18 months?  It may be time to ask for an infusion of self-awareness and the motivation that comes with that.  Volunteer to participate in development sessions.  Convey your interest in regular feedback.  Express your willingness to have a coach – including a peer coach.  Create a plan for the relentless pursuit of improvement.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

 


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