Thursday, March 28, 2013

Three Management Styles

Guest post from Great Leadership regular contributor Paul Thornton:

Management style greatly affects employees’ motivation and capacity to learn. The most effective managers vary their styles depending on the employee’s knowledge and skills, the nature of the task, time constraints, and other factors. By so doing, they encourage and inspire employees to do their best at all times.

The basic concepts presented in this article are derived from the “Situational Leadership Theory Model,” developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. I was privileged to study with both Professor Hersey and Professor Blanchard at Ohio University. Since then, as a college instructor, coach, consultant, corporate trainer, manager, and facilitator, I have successfully applied the concepts described below with many employees and students in a variety of settings.

The Three Ds

It is helpful to think of management styles according to the three Ds: Directing, Discussing, and Delegating. In essence, the three management styles boil down to this.

· Direct — Tell employees what to do

· Discuss — Ask questions and listen

· Delegate — Empower employees

Using an appropriate management style helps the employee learn, grow, and become more independent.

Managers need to consider how much experience their employee has had in doing a particular task. Does the employee have the required knowledge and skills to do the task? If the employee has little or no experience a directing style is appropriate. As employees gain experience and know-how, managers need to move to a discussing style and then a delegating style. The goal is to use a management style that fits the needs of the employee relative to the task he or she is assigned.

The Directing Style
Start with the big picture. Provide the context before launching into specifics. State clearly what you expect, how you expect it to be done, and when it’s due. Wordy and poorly organized directions confuse, overwhelm, and frustrate employees. It’s important to provide the right amount of detail. Communication breakdowns occur when important details are omitted. 

· Communication in the directing style is predominantly one-way, from manager to employee. The manager imparts information to the employee via verbal or written instructions. The only feedback the manager looks for is “Do you understand the instructions?”  

· Coaching occurs as the manager tells the employees what they need to do or change. In addition, the manager may demonstrate desired behaviors.   

· Decision making occurs when the manager defines the problem, evaluates options, and makes a decision. Employees learn how to frame problems, evaluate alternatives, and make effective decisions by understanding the process the manager follows. 

· Recognition happens spontaneously when the manager praises employees who follow directions and complete assignments correctly. It can be accomplished on a more formal basis through company reward/recognition programs and feedback provided in private manager-employee conferences.    

The Discussing Style
Prepare questions in advance. Great discussions don’t just happen. Ask one question at a time. Be open, curious, and interested in learning what your employees think and why they think that way.

· Communication in the discussing style is two-way (between manager and employee) or multi-way (among employees, or among employees and manager). The manager asks challenging questions and listens carefully to the employees’ comments. Follow-up questions help uncover underlying assumptions, reasoning, and feelings. Employees learn to have opinions and be able to back them up with facts and data.  

· Coaching occurs when the manager asks questions that require employees to evaluate their own performance. “How do you think you did? What could you have done better? The goal is to encourage employees to examine what they did, why they did it, and what they can do to improve.   

· Decision making occurs as the manager and employees collaborate and work together to define problems, identify and evaluate alternative solutions, and make sound decisions. Employees learn as they respond to the manager’s questions, offer their own ideas, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each option. 

· Recognition may be given to employees who express their ideas clearly and succinctly. In addition, employees should be praised for thoughtful observations, creative ideas, building on the ideas of others, and helping the group reach a logical conclusion. 

In meetings don’t allow one or two employees to dominate the discussion. Solicit everyone’s ideas and opinions. Promote broad participation by engaging all employees. After a good discussion it’s important to get closure on who is going to do what tasks by when.

The Delegating Style
Assign tasks that are challenging, but not overwhelming. Increase the probability of success for each employee by expressing confidence in his or her ability to get the job done.  

· Communication occurs as the manager assigns tasks for employees to tackle independently or in small groups. Employees listen and ask follow-up questions until they fully understand what they need to deliver. Managers need to get periodic updates from employees to insure appropriate progress is being made.

· Coaching is accomplished primarily through self-coaching. Employees gain the most maturity and confidence when they are able to critique their own performance.

· Decision making happens as employees establish goals, implement plans, and work through issues on their own. They make the decisions.     

· Recognition most often takes the form of praise and other rewards given to employees who work well independently, meet deadlines, and produce quality work.  

As employees grow and develop they want the freedom to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Such independence promotes maturity and increases motivation.


Effective managers use a variety of styles. They know how and when to choose the most appropriate one for the specific situation. At the end of each week, managers should assess their own performance with questions like the following:

· Did I use the most appropriate management style for each task?
· Am I asking the right questions?

· What else can I delegate?

· Who’s ready to take on a bigger task? 

· Are employees becoming more capable and independent? 


Paul B. Thornton is speaker, trainer and professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA, where he teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. He may be contacted at

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

25 Questions (and answers) From LinkedIn Members About Leadership Development

I belong to a number of Leadership Development LinkedIn groups, and everyone once in a while I’ll take a look at the discussions to see what I can learn. Sure, a lot of the “discussions” are just promotional, but it’s still a good way to stay abreast of hot topics and best practices.
It’s also a good way to find out what people are genuinely asking about. I did a scan of some of the groups and pulled out the questions that I found to be intriguing, along with a few goofy ones. I’ll let you decide which is which. Just for grins, I also included my own brief answer or blog post, and tried to avoid answering every question with "it depends". Feel free to provide your own answers (or questions) in the comments section, or disagree with mine.

1. Do you believe emotional intelligence is a skill you can develop in others?
2. Does anyone have any research on the best leadership development programs and talent development practices across organizations?
CCL has the best research I’ve seen, but the basic principles of effective leadership development are well known and relatively timeless. It’s just that the companies that do it so well and get positive results are truly committed and take no shortcuts.
3. Do you agree that of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable? – and one of the least understood?
Yes, if not the most, at least in the top 3.
4. Should leaders take action to create a "happy" environment for their people?
Hmmm. Not so sure about “happy”, but how about “engaged”?
5. How do you get leaders to realize that they need to develop further? How do you approach small business owners who don't have a boss over them to convince them to develop?
Feedback can help, as can peer networking.
6. Should "high potential" employees know of their status?
7. I'm looking for criteria to identify "business critical roles" to narrow the list of positions for succession planning purposes. Any recommendations?
What roles are critical to the growth of our organization in which you are forecasting high demand and low supply? What positions would your Board of Directors be concerned about if the incumbent were to leave?
8. What are the workplace behaviors you have observed that have the most negative impact on organizational success?
A lack of emotional intelligence. See question #1.
9. What have you found is the biggest hurdle to getting Succession Planning implemented?
A lack of CEO and executive teamcommitment.
10. How often should Talent Review meetings occur?
At least yearly, with quarterly check-ins.
11. I am looking for a good book on succession planning do you have any recommendations?
12. What should happen to an individual's placement in the 9-Box Chart if they take on a new and challenging position?
Create a special category: “Too new to rate”, then place 6-12 months later.
13. Should Talent Profiles (internal resumes) include a photograph of each employee?
14. Can you teach old dogs new tricks?
Grrrrr. Yes.
15. Is relationship building the cornerstone of successful Leadership?
16. Leadership Lessons from the Movies - what's your favorite Movie?
17. Are Leaders Born or Made?
About 70% made, 30% born.
18. How are you using Social Media for your personal leadership development?
I think we're just starting to scratch the surface, lot's of exciting potential here, even minus the hype.
19. Leaders Develop Themselves First! Don't You Agree?
20. Can you train people to be authentic?
21. In designing a Leadership 101 course for new managers, what do you feel should be the main topics to be included (- Presuming a 5 day course)?
22. How important do you think it is to prepare the next generation for leadership before they enter the workplace?
Hmmm, not so sure.
23. Can a manager be a coach?
Yes, at least a manager can coach.
24. How does internal training compare to external training?
25. What have you found to be the most effective methods for maximizing the "stickability" of learnings from leadership workshops and other educational events?

Friday, March 22, 2013

5 Reasons Most Teams Underperform

Guest post from Mark Miller:
Have you ever been on a great team? I’ve come to realize over the years not everyone can say yes. As I think about my own experience, I realize I’ve been on scores, if not hundreds of teams; unfortunately, the majority have not lived up to their potential. The more I study the topic, the more it feels like there’s a global pandemic of underperforming teams.

Think about the wasted human and financial capital from teams who don’t reach high performance team status. Like a scientist from the Center for Disease Control, I wanted to find the root cause of this problem and the cure.

My personal team journey began almost 50 years ago. As a child, I played on sports teams from my earliest memory. My professional team journey officially began just over 20 years ago. In an attempt to improve quality in our restaurants, Chick-fil-A asked me to help us learn and apply the best practices of the most elite, high performing teams. I wrote about our journey in my book, The Secret of Teams.

Today, I’ll focus on the five most common reasons we’ve seen over the years for underperforming teams.

1. Lack of Leadership
This may seem obvious but the truth is most teams that struggle and those that ultimately fail do so because of poor leadership. There is a legend that great teams can exist without leadership – it is a myth. Teams must be well led. This can come from an individual or the team itself, but leadership is the single-most critical factor for team success.

2. Insufficient Focus on Results
Great teams exist to accomplish something. If a team doesn’t have clarity on the results they are pursuing, they will drift. Worse yet, they will waste resources. A compelling performance challenge is at the heart of high performance.

3. Wrong Players on the Team
The team with the best talent usually wins. This is no guarantee but it matters. Do you have men and women on the team who are team players? Are they willing to learn and grow? Are they open to feedback and coaching? Are they willing to accept responsibility? If you’ve got the wrong players, high performance will forever be just out of your reach.

4. Skill Gaps
Does your team have the necessary skills to excel? A team needs two distinct skill sets to perform at its best – individual and team skills. Do the members have the skills needed to perform their assigned responsibilities with excellence? Does the team know how to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict and have effective meetings? If any of these are lacking, the performance will be too.

5. No Sense of Community
The little known fact about teams is what actually makes the great ones great. As important as Talent and Skills are, they are insufficient to propel a team to greatness. The best teams always demonstrate a genuine care and concern for each other. We call this community. It is a place where the team members know, serve, celebrate and mourn together. It is not an accident; it is the result of a conscious decision to create this type of place.

The good news – all of these deficiencies can be overcome. Your team can do it! Many have successfully navigated the road you’re on today. Granted, the path to the top is not easy to travel, but the view from the summit is unmatched. Stay the course and enjoy the journey!

Mark Miller, well known business leader, best-selling author, and communicator, is excited about sharing The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do with those who are ready to grow. You can find it on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. You can also read Mark’s blog at

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How to Respond to an Employee's Mistake

Mistakes happens. I've made them, you've made them, we've all made them. As a manager, you're not only responsible for your own dumb mistakes, you're responsible for every one of the mistakes that each of your employee's make.

Given all of these mistakes, there's a lot of potential opportunities to practice how you respond.

You have two choices:

You can lose your temper, yell, scream, embarrass and punish the employee. While that approach may produce a temporary feeling of euphoria via an adrenaline rush for YOU, it'll only makes sure your employee will do everything they can do to ensure you never find out about future mistakes they make. In other words, they'll get really good at covering up, and not so good at accountability.

The employee will most likely also think you're an $&*#-hole, and no one wants to work for an $&*#-hole. Oh, and the next time you make a mistake - that's the one the employee won't be so careful to cover up.

A better approach is to step back, take a deep breadth, and look at each time an employee makes a mistake as an opportunity to lead and develop the employee.

Here are tips for how to respond to an employee's mistake in a way that develops, vs. punishes, and provides you an opportunity to shine as a leader and earn your employee's respect and loyalty:

1. If the employee discovers their own mistake and comes to you, thank them for being accountable and bringing it to your attention. Let them know that mistakes happen, and it's important to you to acknowledge them and fix them as soon as possible.

2. Be a role model for the above behavior by publicly acknowledging your own mistakes.

3. Don't focus on placing blame - focus on solving the problem and making sure it doesn't happen again.

4. Ask questions and listen - without judgement - in order to gather all of the facts.

5. If appropriate, ask the employee what they think needs to be done to solve the problem and make sure it doesn't happen again. In most cases, people will know. If you rush in to solve the problem yourself (and sometimes you may have to), you miss the opportunity to coach and teach the employee to think for themselves.

There will be times when an employee just won't know what they did wrong and how to solve the problem. That's the time to practice situational leadership, and switch from coaching to teaching. You might have to spend time explaining to the employee WHY what they did was a mistake, i.e., it was a violation of a policy, the negative impact it has on the business or customer, etc...

Almost every mistake can be treated as a development opportunity. You may as well - it's a sunk cost, and not harvesting a return on the investment is bad management.

6. Separate the behavior from the end result. Sometimes, the employee practiced all the right behaviors, but didn't get the desired result. Other times, they'll get the desired result, but do it in a way that you'd never want them to repeat. By asking questions and listening (tip #4), you'll be able to learn what to reinforce and what to correct.

7. After the meeting, take some time to step back and examine the system, process, structure, etc... that may have contributed to the mistake. Maybe similar istakes can be prevented with better training, communication, and/or procedures. Mistakes rarely have just a single cause, and people are not always the problem.

A measure of a leader is the impact you have on every employee's energy level, or morale, after an interaction with you. Chances are, if they came to you with a mistake, they were dreading the meeting and already feeling pretty crummy about it.

This is often the time when an employee needs to know it's OK - that it's not the end of the world, and you're not going to hold it against them. I'm not saying the mistake should be minimized, especially if it's a doozy. However, once an action plan is agreed to and lessons were learned, make sure the employee leaves the discussion with their head held high and feeling confident in their abilities. They will always remember that moment - not just because they learned a valuable lesson, but they'll remember what you did for them as a leader.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Carefrontation — The Ultimate Leadership Trait

Guest post by Mark Hopkins:

The best leadership tip I ever received came from a pastor’s sermon during a non-denominational service in Yosemite Valley Chapel.  Maybe it was the message or maybe it was that I had 5 hours to think about it as I hiked up Half Dome later that morning, but 25 years later I can still recall it clearly.  The reverend’s message was that if you find yourself in a position where you have the opportunity to help another person recognize their own limiting behavior, and make a change for the better, that you are obligated to help them.  He went on to explain that this kind of feedback was confrontational and would only be accepted and processed by the recipient if it was delivered in an extremely caring fashion.  In fact he had coined a name for the process when it was done correctly.  He called it carefrontation. 
The pastor was clearly providing guidance to parishioners on how to help others confront tough problems, but to me it sounded a lot like a leadership strategy.  As a new project manager at Hewlett Packard I found that I interacted with a lot of brilliant people, many of who had been conditioned by higher learning institutions to compete rather than collaborate.  It was clear that we would get a lot more done if we could move the culture toward a higher level of trust and cooperation and away from the zero sum game to which they were accustomed. HP had a great training program for new managers, but I decided to add carefrontation to my management style and had great results almost immediately.  When team members began to understand that I really cared about them and would always act in their best interest, we started building a level of trust that changed the way we worked. And it was contagious.  Team members started cooperating and collaborating at a level that got them, and me, noticed.
Over the years I have witnessed the powerful changes that occur when team members care about each other and truly have each other’s backs.  Trust based organizations:
1.    Execute faster: Stephen Covey calls it “The Speed of Trust”.  A trust-based organization spends less time on formal communication and more time getting the job done.  Speed = productivity.
2.    Innovate more: Employees who know the boss has their back think outside the box without fear of failure or retribution.
3.    Produce higher quality work:  Happy people simply care more and do better work because of it.
4.    Attract Customers:  If you think customers can’t feel the company culture, think again. They sense a trust based organization intuitively and want to be associated with it.
5.    Have lower turnover:  After working within a culture of carefrontation it’s almost impossible to go back — and they don’t.
The need for these kinds of organizational attributes has never been higher.  Here in Denver, DaVita Healthcare Partners has demonstrated how this philosophy can pay big dividends in the increasingly scrutinized world of healthcare service providers.  DaVita operates more than 1,800 dialysis centers and employs over 40,000 people domestically.  In spite of their size, or perhaps because of it, they have gone to great lengths to communicate a carefrontation mentality that you can see woven through their core values document.  Here’s an excerpt: “We are trusted because we are trustworthy… We genuinely care for and support, not only those to whom we provide care, but those with whom we work shoulder-to-shoulder.”  The company has used this foundation to achieve an incredible 11 straight years of improved clinical outcomes and financial results.
Regardless of the markets we serve, every one of us knows that our organization’s providence rests squarely on our ability to make the changes demanded by the fast moving target of customer satisfaction.  Creating a company culture where people genuinely care about each other is the best way I know of for a team to confront the challenges it faces and confidently drive improvement in the value chain as well as in itself.
Mark Hopkins earned engineering degrees from Cornell and Stanford and then spent the next twenty-five years deciphering the factors that make some people prosperous, successful and happy After building a leadership career with companies like Hewlett Packard and Emerson Electric, Hopkins founded Peak Industries, a medical device contract manufacturer, which he grew to $75 million and later sold to Delphi. He then founded Crescendo Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and Catalyst, a private foundation supporting Colorado-based nonprofits and micro-lending in the developing world.  He is the author of Shortcut to Prosperity: 10 Entrepreneurial Habits and a Roadmap For An Exceptional Career.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Succession Planning Development Plans: Skill Gaps or Experience Gaps?

Let’s say you’ve had your talent review meeting, using a performance and potential (9 box) matrix, and have identified a pool of high potential employees. Or, you’ve done a position based succession plan for key positions, and identified a slate of 3-4 candidates for each position. Maybe you’re a manager, and you’re just concerned about identifying and grooming successors for you own position, so that you’ll have a replacement ready when it’s time for you to move up or on.
Now what? Well, unless you create and implement a targeted, robust, realistic, and measurable development plan, all that work will have been for nothing. Because in 2-3 years, you’ll be staring at the same list of candidates, and they won’t be any more ready than they were when you started.
The Skill Gap Approach
High potentials or succession planning candidates are rarely “ready now” for a higher level position. There’s always at least one significant “gap”, usually a few, that stands between them and being qualified for that next level position. The most common way to create development plans to address those gaps is to identify 1-3 key skills, or competencies, that the candidate is lacking that need to get better at. For example, the ability to “think strategically” is often identified for senior level positions. To create a development plan to address this skill gap, we might have the candidate take an executive development course in strategy, be mentored or coached by someone who’s really strategic, and assign them to lead a project that will require them to be strategic.  For each skill, you’d have a set of development actions to address the skill.
The Experience Gap Approach:
There’s an less often used, but just as effective way to get someone ready for a higher level position – the experience gap approach.
Managers often find it challenging to identify specific skills required for a role. Even when they do, coming up with the right mix of development actions often involves a little bit of guess work and a roll of the dice. In the example above, there’s no guarantee the candidate is actually going to learn how to think strategically by doing that mix of activities. They may learn how to plan, delegate, develop a strategy, influence, and who knows what else, but never learn how to think in a difference way.  That’s the nature of development – no two people will learn the exact same thing taking an identical course, being coached by the same individual, or leading the same project.
So instead of trying to identify and close skill gaps, it’s often easier to identify the key experiences a candidate needs in order to be qualified for the higher level position. For example, in order to be a global general manager, a candidate should have the following experiences:
- Created a budget
- Led a multi-function, diverse team
- Worked in at least two difference countries
- Have turned around a struggling business
- Created an implemented a new go-to-market strategy
- Led a six-sigma project
Once these key experiences have been identified, it’s much easier to assess s if a candidate has done these things – you just need to read their resume. If they have not, then viola, there’s the development plan - i.e., create a budget, a transfer to a role in a different country, etc…
New experiences will always develop many new skills, not just one.
When this approach is used, it’s still important to identify other elements of the development plan needed to learn how to be successful in the new experience. For any of the examples above, the person is going to have a greater chance of success – and development – if they supplement the experience with the right courses, books, subject matter experts, etc…. At the end of the day, the desired end result is the same – a qualified successor.
In my experience, both methods are equally effective. However, if you find yourself stuck using the skill gap method, try the experience gap method and it should get you to the same place.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Leaders Need to Stop Making the Decisions

Guest post from Dennis Bakke:

I believe the vast majority of people are creative, trustworthy, and capable of making meaningful decisions at work. My new book, The Decision Maker, is a clarion call for bosses to STOP making decisions. Instead of bosses making the call, I believe the best approach is to push decision-making down to the lowest levels of the organization; to those on the “front line”. It’s not always easy to trust and empower others. It’s hard to let go.

I’ve embedded a summary slideshow of my thinking below – also on slideshare.


One of the keys to empower others in your organization is what I call “the advice process.” It is a very simple, although often controversial, concept. It takes the “suggestion box” management approach of the 1970s and ’80s and turns it upside down. Instead of the boss getting advice and suggestions from people below, the decision-maker—who is almost always not an official leader—seeks advice from leaders and from peers.

Usually, the decision-maker is the person whose area is most affected, or the one who initiated an idea, discovered a problem, or saw an opportunity. If it is unclear who the decision-maker should be, the leader selects an individual to gather advice and make the final decision. Before any decision can be made on any company matter, the decision-maker must seek advice. The bigger the issue or problem, the wider the net that should be thrown to gather pertinent information from people inside and outside the company. In my opinion, all issues of importance require the decision maker to get advice. I’d go as far as to fire someone if they didn’t ask for advice on a big decision.

At AES, the global energy company I co-founded with Roger Sant, we did not always do a good job of carrying out the advice process, especially the requirement to reach beyond the team or business unit where the decision-maker worked. Sometimes, the information and analysis provided to the potential adviser was sloppy and incomplete. However, even with these weaknesses, the quality of the decisions using this approach was at least as good as those decisions made under more conventional management systems, often better. Probably more important, it made work more interesting and fun for thousands of AES people.

The advice process is my answer to the age-old organizational dilemma of how to embrace the rights and needs of the individual, while simultaneously ensuring the successful functioning of the team, community, or company. I observed that Japanese companies tended to emphasize the group and consensus, while American culture pushed rugged individualism. I believe the advice process strikes a better balance. It leaves the final decisions to individuals, but it forces them to weigh the needs and wishes of the community. Parenthetically, the Internet was made to order for our advice process. The kind of wide consultations that I advocate would not be possible in large, dispersed organizations were it not for email.

Five important things happen when the advice process is used by an individual before making a decision or taking action:

1. Asking for advice draws the people whose advice is sought into the question at hand. They learn about the issues and become knowledgeable critics or cheerleaders. The sharing of information reinforces the feeling of community. Each person whose advice is sought feels honored and needed.

2. Asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, “I need you.” The decision-maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. In my experience, this makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to simply ignore advice.

3. Making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.

4. The chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision-maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and will probably be more conversant with the pros and cons than people in more senior positions. What’s more, the decision-maker usually has to live with consequences of the decision.

5. The process is just plain fun for the decision-maker because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The amount of fun in an organization is largely a function of the number of individuals allowed to make decisions. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Dennis Bakke is the co-founder of Imagine Schools and the author of the upcoming book “The Decision Maker” (March, Pear Press). In “The Decision Maker,” a leadership fable loosely based on his personal experience, shows how giving decisions to the people closest to the action can transform any organization. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller “Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job.” Bakke previously co-founded and served as the president and CEO of AES, a Fortune 200 global power company. He lives with his wife in Arlington, VA. Learn more at

Monday, March 4, 2013

The March 2013 Leadership Development Carnival

The March 2013 Leadership Development Carnival isn't here this month.... but you can take a trip over to Jesse Lyn Stoner's blog and find it right here:

You'll find an all-star collection of 40 or so recent leadership and leadership development posts from some of my favorite bloggers.

Next month's Carnival (April 1) is back here at Great Leadership, after a little hiatus.

A CEO’s Guide to Leadership Development

This post was published in SmartBlog on Leadership last week:

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” — Martina Navratilova

The biggest differentiator of companies that excel in leadership development is the commitment and ownership of the CEO or top executive.” — Dan McCarthy

Don’t you hate it when people quote themselves?

It’s easy for a “chicken” CEO to just pay lip service to leadership development. All they need to do is show up at the annual talent review and nod their heads; stop by a few training programs to give a quick talk, approve the training budget, and read the script written for them by HR that tells them to say, “People are our most important assets” at every employee gathering.

You can tell what’s really important to them by taking a look at their calendar to see where they spend their time, the agenda items on their executive team meetings, and by what gets measured.

So when it comes to leadership development, what’s the difference between a CEO that is just “involved” and one that is really committed?

Here are 10 things that I believe would give any CEO the best return on their time invested. The good news is that none of these involve spending much money, and they may already be doing many of them:

1. Focus on results and don’t let the process be the tail wagging the dog.
I’ve seen way too many organizations get caught up in the process and lose sight of the results. They create complicated processes and forms, thick binders, have long meetings, and put way too much importance on impressing their board of directors in their annual talent review. Once the meeting is over, the binder gets set aside and nothing happens until the next year. VPs and senior managers soon catch on that it’s nothing but an exercise and focus on looking good instead of being good.

This doesn’t mean the annual CEO and board reviews are not important — it’s been my experience that if you don’t do this, then nothing happens. Events, like annual check-ups, force things to happen that otherwise get pushed aside because they are not urgent.

2. Have high expectations for the head of HR.
The CEO’s HR partner not only needs to know all of the best practices and processes, but they have to have the ability to influence and be trusted by the executive team as well as be the CEO’s trusted adviser on talent. It’s a tough balance — they may be coaching a struggling VP one day and recommending to the CEO the same VP be replaced the next day. They have to be able to play match-maker and broker job changes, and manage all of the ego and politics involved.

3. Practice what you preach.
Committed CEOs publicly work on their own leadership development, then work on the development of their executive team. They coach them, give them feedback, and develop individual development plans with them. They support their development. A CEO’s behaviors are powerful — they set the expectations for the rest of the management team, creating a trickle-down effect of leadership development.

4. Know how executives really develop.
Think back on your career — where and how did you learn your most valuable leadership lessons? It was probably:
  • New jobs
  • Challenging assignments
  • From other people (good and bad bosses, a coach, mentors, etc.)
  • Courses, books, articles, and other means
Too many companies spend too much time on the last bullet point — it’s not only the least effective, it’s lazy. The top companies understand it’s all about learning through experience. When you think about it, it’s a sunk cost – you might as well leverage it. Don’t get me wrong — courses can be effective, when they are designed in ways that incorporate the other points.

5. Be the CTB (Chief Talent Broker)
While there are challenges to cross-functional movement of high potentials, somehow the companies best at leadership development figure out how to do it without damaging the business and ruining careers. They intentionally move their HIPOs — high potentials — from job to job to get them ready for bigger jobs.

If it’s left up to each manager, it won’t happen. Why should they? It’s certainly not in their best interests to give up their best talent. The CEO is the only one (other than the HR vice president) looking at leadership development from a what’s best for the company, long-range perspective. Managers won’t do it — or even see value in it — unless the CEO establishes it as an expectation and encourages them to give up their top talent and be willing to accept (and develop) unlikely developmental candidates.

6. Spend time assessing talent.
Assessing talent is all about having regular talent reviews, conducting formal assessments, and spending time with high-potentials. Know what to look for, too — indicators of success in larger roles isn’t the same as performance in a current role. Astute CEOs know how to ask the questions, what behaviors to look for, and the difference between performance (results) and leadership potential.

7. Hold others accountable for assessing and developing future leaders.
All too often companies will conduct talent reviews and succession plan reviews and discuss development and IDPs — then, a year later, nothing happens. A CEO needs to establish the vision, set meaningful goals, measure them, and hold people accountable. It takes time to change a culture, but a few public coronations and hangings help send the message that it’s important.

8. Stay involved in company leadership development programs.
Yes, CEOs should keep sponsoring those executive development programs and show up to speak — that’s a good start. However, committed CEOs don’t just show up at the beginning and end — they teach in programs, get to know participants and help set program objectives and measures.

9. Keep the board engaged.
The CEO’s board is involved in all of the other strategic aspects of the business — why not leadership development? Board members can be valuable sources of insight, advice and connections, and their support is important when it’s time to make key talent decisions.

10. Take decisive action on underperformers
Entrenched underperformers block the development and advancement of an organization’s high potentials.When I’ve conducted 9 box meetings, leadership teams often clam up when I try to engage them in this discussion. They don’t do a good job differentiating (everybody’s a B or A, and nobody’s a C), and they are too hesitant or slow to take action. I think, in general, most companies are too tolerant and slow to act.