Leadership Growth Starts with Courageous Communication

post from Matt Paese

  So, we
have a serious leadership shortage and it’s getting worse

CEO:  So hire more people.

doing that. It’s not enough

CEO:  What about our development programs? Aren’t
they working?

Not quickly enough. We need to get more people
into the pipeline. Like now

CEO: Which people?                                

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?

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:

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.

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.

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.

author Matt Paese:

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
His insights have
been featured by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune,
and the Financial Times