How Some Companies Are Aiming High In Leadership Development

September 10, 2021

Leadership Development

How Some Companies Are Aiming High In Leadership Development

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” —Michelangelo.

What is the aim of current leadership development efforts? One way of determining the current aim is to identify what is happening in most companies. A few examples are:

  1. Have 40 leaders acquire some additional knowledge or build a skill they can use.
  2. Provide a remedial experience for leaders who are faltering. This is leadership development used as an “emergency room.”
  3. Elevate the knowledge and skills of a small group of people who have been identified as “high-potential” by their respective bosses.
  4. Hone the knowledge and skills of the most senior executives via participation in a university executive development program.
  5. Provide special opportunities for under-represented groups in management, such as women or minorities.

The above targets represent good objectives—it is better to do these than nothing at all. The question is whether the above represent high aims or whether the organizations implementing these initiatives could be aiming much higher.

How Do We Aim Higher?

  1. Significantly increase promotions from within. Most organizations go outside for at least 1/3 of their executive positions. Consider reducing that to 1/5. While there is value in adding outside perspectives or filling the need for an entirely new skill set, the data clearly indicates that the failure rate of external hires is far higher than those from within.
  2. Change corporate culture. It’s been strongly stated by leading experts that corporate culture eats strategy for lunch. Yet cultures can easily lag behind, becoming stagnant or even petrified. Of the many options available to affect culture change, leadership development is one of the most effective and controllable.
  3. Improve employee engagement. The quality of leadership is the most important determinant of employee engagement. Imagine the long-term effect of sending the signal that the company insists that every employee should be working for an excellent leader. Imagine the effect of practicing the policy of zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior on the part of leaders.
  4. Set clear expectations. What if everyone was expected to be interested and helpful in the development of all their colleagues—above, below, and to every side of them? Set the expectation that every leader, regardless of level or tenure, has an individual plan of development that is actively being pursued.
  5. Don’t wait on development. Begin developing leaders while they are early in their careers, rather than waiting until they have been promoted and have adopted unhelpful attitudes and practices.
  6. Widen the search. Look for leadership talent in every functional arena, every geography, and every line of business.
  7. Redefine “leadership.” Leadership occurs in many ways, going beyond those who have “manager” or “director” in their title. Leadership should be developed in a much larger group of people, which in turn will make the organization a more effective enterprise.

Why Don’t More Organizations Aim High?

We know from our research at Zenger Folkman that the majority of leaders can become significantly more effective when they are given accurate information about their current practices and provided with help in constructing a plan of development.

For example, leaders who possess a behavior that stands out as a detractor from their effectiveness can move from the 18th percentile in their overall effectiveness to the 46th percentile. That is a huge gain! What had been a millstone about their neck is largely thrown off and no longer pulls them down.

The following graph shows results from 1,469 leaders who had one or more fatal flaws in their initial data. After working to improve over 18 to 24 months, this group made a significant improvement.

Overall Leadership Effectiveness of leaders with Fatal Flaws pre-test and post-test

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On the other hand, those without any major flaw have been shown to move from the 55th to the 75th percentile. After receiving a 360-degree feedback process and putting together a plan of development, this group of leaders also improved.

The following graph shows results for 1,589 leaders, all of which had no significant weaknesses or fatal flaws. In the initial results, these leaders came in at the 55th percentile. By working on building one or more strengths, they moved from the 55th to the 75th percentile. In other words, they move from barely above average into the top quartile of leaders.

Overall Leadership Effectiveness of leaders with no fatal flaws pre-test and post-test

Why don’t more senior executives set these kinds of expectations for their leadership development team? It may be that it doesn’t occur to them, or they don’t realize that it is possible. They may not think their current leadership development staff could pull off such a dramatic change. The flip side of the coin is that the leadership development staff has done nothing to prompt that request. That combination creates the situation where we coast along, aiming low and hitting that target. It takes action from both senior executives and leadership development teams to create a culture where everyone is aiming high.

—Jack Zenger
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

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