How to Start a Leadership Exchange Program

We all know that there’s no better way to develop a broad and deep set of leadership competencies than having a variety of challenging and diverse jobs. The most successful leaders, especially general managers, tend to hone their skills by working in different functions, geographies, and product lines.

GE is best known for this kind of a general management leadership development model. They’re able to do this because they are so large, and have so many different businesses all over the world.

However, even if a company does have the potential to move their high potential leaders around in developmental assignments, they don’t always do it. Why not? Because without some kind of intervention, or top-down process, it won’t happen naturally. Job changes, especially to new areas, are inherently risky, for both the manager as well as the hiring manager. They both may understand that these moves are for the longer term greater good, however, shorter term priorities always come first.

One way a company, or HR leader, can overcome this dilemma is to implement a “Leadership Exchange Program”, or “LEP”. Here’s how it works:

Identify positions

The Talent Manager, or HR Leader, works with senior executives to identify positions that could be filled with an LEP candidate. These should be positions that are developmental by design – small plants, small businesses, Assistant to the CEO, etc… The position may be opening up in the near future or a newly created role. You might set a target of one position per senior executive, or business unit. It’s helpful to have CEO sponsorship, in case some senior executive doesn’t want to play.

Identify candidates

This part’s a lot trickier. Candidates for an LEP should be of the highest caliber, truly high potentials being groomed for senior leadership positions. They should be at a point where they are ready and willing for this kind of developmental challenge. The fastest way to kill the program is to let someone into the program that some senior executive wants to get rid of.
An ideal candidate would be a promising leader that’s never worked outside of their home country, or a career engineer that needs some manufacturing experience, or a line manager that needs some staff experience. Gather a list of names, along with brief bios and a summary of their development needs.

Match candidates with positions

This can be an annual process, tied into the succession planning and development process, or it can be a regular monthly or quarterly meeting. The Talent Manager or HR Leader is responsible for gathering all of the responsible senior executives at the table and facilitating the discussion of who should move into what job. At times, the CEO may need to get involved to force a decision or override a resistant senior executive. Eventually, once the program gains some traction and success stories begin to emerge, the program takes a life of its own. High potential leaders start asking to be on the list, because they realize it’s a career builder. Senior Executives get more comfortable filling positions with “unnatural” candidates because they see what a top caliber leader, even with an initial steep learning curve, can bring to their business.

Keep the process as simple as possible. There should only be two confidential documents – a position list and a candidate list. Anything more than that means you’re adding too much bureaucracy and over complicating it. The focus should be on the discussions and true developmental moves, not filling out a lot of forms and checking off boxes.