Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Impact of the Top Leader

A Genie (actually an HR Vice-president at a former company) once asked me, “Dan, if you could only do one thing for leadership development, what would it be?” You see, this was a company that was going through some tough belt-tightening, and we spent a lot of time making hard choices as to what to keep and what to cut. My initial reaction was I a thought it was sucker’s choice question. That is, of course you can’t develop leaders by doing just one thing, leadership development is a system, involving many interdependent variables. But I knew what she was getting at – she was trying to get me to prioritize, or perhaps to test my ability to think strategically. I thought about it for just a few seconds, and then, without thinking of the political consequences, blurted out, “get a new CEO?” Definitely the wrong answer, not what she was looking for at all. But you know, I still stand behind the answer. My experience has been that it always does seem to link back to the top banana’s belief and commitment to developing leaders. I once heard a CEO say, “You know, I don’t have time to teach people, and at this level, I shouldn't’t have to!” Well, at least he admitted it – better than phony lip service with all talk and no action. On the other hand, I worked with an executive named Marty Coyne, who was proud to say he spent 75% of his time developing leaders. I sat though a few talent review meetings with him, and he was dead serious about it. It was painful to witness his wrath when a business unit president showed up unprepared, or was not doing enough to weed out poor performers and develop high potentials. (these butt-kicking’s were all part of his 75%). And of course, we’ve all heard about how committed to Jack Welch was to leadership development and Crotenville.

Why does it matter so much? When a senior leader understands the strategic value of leadership development and the ROI, all else falls into place. There’s a cascading effect from role modeling, setting expectations, inspection, and ultimately, improved business performance. As a practitioner, you’re not spending time deciding what to cut or figuring out how to sell your new program, you’re hanging on to a tiger’s tail and trying to keep up. The expectations are sky high, and you better deliver, but I’ll take that deal any chance I can.
How about you? How would you answer the question?

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