Guest post from Matt Paese
Talent Exec: So, we have a serious leadership shortage and it’s getting worse.
CEO: So hire more people.
Talent Exec: We’re doing that. It’s not enough.
CEO: What about our development programs? Aren’t they working?
Talent Exec: Not quickly enough. We need to get more people into the pipeline. Like now.
CEO: Which people?
Talent Exec: The ones with leadership potential. The ones who will grow the fastest.
CEO: Okay. What do we say to everyone else?
The decision to accelerate leadership growth comes quickly and easily. There’s often no alternative. But things get messy when you have to decide whom to accelerate. That means differentiating between people by their levels of potential. This too can be done, with the right approach and tools, and it works particularly well in a private conference room, far away from the eyes and ears of the rest of the company.
Out in the hallways, talking about accelerated leadership growth gets tricky. Sitting down with the top performers to share the good news is easy and rewarding. It’s figuring out what to say to everyone else that hijacks good intentions. Referring to some leaders as “high potential”, or to development efforts as “acceleration programs” can be like tip-toeing through an employee engagement landmine. Say the wrong thing and you’ll signal a secret in-group. Only the cool kids get development. Same old no-diversity boys club. Enter: morale crisis.
But leadership shortages cripple business progress and create urgency for accelerated development. It’s not like there’s an option to do nothing. Still, we’ve seen some of the most determined organizations embark on the effort to identify high-potential leaders, only to be stymied by philosophical resistance. The rationale goes like this: "We can’t create an elitist culture," and "What will we say to the ones who aren't identified?"
So, when your business situation mandates that you grow leaders faster from within, and you can’t accelerate everyone at once, what are the right messages to share?
Start With Acceleration Ground Rules
Acceleration is an investment in the business that also has big impact on culture. Although not all people in an organization will be involved, it’s fair to say that acceleration affects everyone – by inclusion or omission. So it’s essential to establish some ground rules that can be discussed openly with the entire organization. Below are the basics of a clear and public communication plan. If you can’t discuss these freely, chances are you’ll get resistance, and ultimately struggle to grow leadership:
· We need this. Accelerating the growth of a subset of leaders (with high potential) is a business necessity.
• Everyone is eligible, although not everyone can participate at the same time. Diversity is a value.
• It’s not a club. Those receiving specialized development experiences will rotate periodically.
• It’s not a promise. Those receiving specialized development are not guaranteed promotions – all promotions are based on readiness for the requirements of the role.
• It doesn’t deny growth for others. Everyone in the organization still receives development.
• Everyone matters to the company’s future. Not being offered special accelerated development does not lessen one’s value to the organization, or limit ones prospects for advancement.
Each organization has to customize these messages, but establishing a clear narrative that people can discuss, and even debate, is part of the essential foundation of an organization that truly works at growth. Making adjustments is healthy. In fact, doing so signals to the organization that you’re listening.
Be Straight with Accelerated Learners, and Offer a Choice
Most people appreciate the opportunity to learn at work. But when the objective is to learn faster, that’s different. Apprehension is not unusual. But one thing is sure: People won’t learn faster if they’re not aware that doing so is the objective. Translation: You have to tell people that they’ve been identified for accelerated learning. You don’t have to call them “high potentials”. In fact, you don’t have to name people at all – just name the experience they’ll be part of (e.g., specialized learning, the leader experience, etc ). That helps to avoid perceptions of permanent designations.
But be careful. It's not enough to simply tell high-potential leaders that management thinks highly of them and explain what will happen next. That alone won't cultivate the engagement needed to drive accelerated learning. Individual leaders must be offered the choice to participate, or to opt out without negative consequences.
Oddly, this practice is routinely overlooked. Perhaps in days gone by leaders were more predictable in their desire for advancement. Not so anymore. Fewer leaders seek leadership advancement, and those who do often have conditions.
Step Up to the Conversations Your People Want
It’s easy to have healthy discussions with top performers. But it’s tough when someone asks, “Why not me?” Weaknesses in the performance management system, coupled with a lack of skills among top leaders to navigate these conversations, can create resentment among those not identified as high potentials. They don’t get a sound explanation of why, or they're left with a feeling that their advancement possibilities are limited.
Wary of these outcomes, many organizations adopt policies of secrecy, keeping the names of high-potential leaders known only to an inner circle of senior players. But while this approach seems to sidestep the communication challenges, it undermines the original intent of the acceleration effort. It’s not necessary or prudent to make lists of names and potential status public, but that doesn’t make saying nothing the better alternative.
Imagine you’re the high potential leader: You’re experienced, work exceptionally hard, and your track record shows it. Management has plans for you, if you can grow. They not only hope, but need you to acquire new skills and capabilities, and quickly. You’ll need to stretch yourself to take on new challenges. You may be asked to participate in key projects that can teach you crucial lessons, or you may attend formal learning experiences that provide instrumental insights.
But no one has mentioned any of this to you.
Somehow, when leaders graduate to senior management, they become weirdly hesitant to talk honestly about the performance and potential of others. But this doesn’t square with what most people want. Ask nearly any employee, particularly the high performers, and they’ll beg for more feedback, not less. It’s no secret that people want to know how they’re doing, and what their prospects for the future look like, even if the news isn’t good. These fundamental truths are core to the effort to grow leaders.
One thing is sure: Avoiding these conversations makes the problem worse, particularly when the organization is facing a critical leadership shortage. Closing the gap is not a task management can accomplish alone. And for that reason, it’s essential to confront a leadership crisis by starting with your communication plan. Learn to talk about leadership potential with all your people, and you’ll soon learn to do what it takes to grow the leaders you need.
Matt Paese is a vice president of succession management and c-suite services for Development Dimensions International, or DDI. He is the co-author of Leaders Ready Now, out in June, and Grow Your Own Leaders. In his work at DDI, Matt consults with senior leaders to design and implement strategic organizational talent initiatives, including succession management, CEO succession, executive assessment, executive coaching, development and team building. His insights have been featured by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and the Financial Times.