Leader Development - Now What?

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Leader Development - Now What?

by Bill Catlette

20 June, 2022 • memphis

In a recent LinkedIN post https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/jack-pretty-damn-good-jeff-immelt/, former GE Chairman & CEO Jeff Immelt paid tribute to his predecessor, Jack Welch. “Jack invested in leadership. He was a good coach… demanding and fair. GE produced a lot of good leaders” which they did.

That’s not gratuitous praise. Like all of us, Jack had his warts, but this wasn’t one of them. The product of an era when organizational leaders were known to have some hard edges, but long views of the employment term relative to today, he seemed to rationalize that if you’re going to work with people on a longer horizon, time will buff out some of the hard conversations, and as long as you’re providing leaders with better understanding and tools to compete with and superior rewards, all is fair.

Having visited GE’s Crotonville leadership university a time or two and studied the results of this investment, I can vouch for the level of involvement, the rigor, and commitment, to include copious amounts of the Chairman’s own time, in the effort to build better leaders faster, which GE did incomparably. Aside from wading into the “Pit” at Crotonville, Jack was notorious for being directly and meaningfully involved (to the chagrin of some) in GE’s performance review  process.

That was then, and this is now. For the first part of the intervening years, many organizations made reasonable attempts at emulating GE’s efforts to build a solid leadership bench, to include my home stadium at the time, FedEx, where founder, CEO, and Chairman Fred Smith used much of Welch’s playbook, with excellent results.

But somewhere along the way, as job tenures grew ever shorter, many organizations abandoned that path on the mistaken notion that there’s no advantage to investing in tomorrow’s leaders, because their “tomorrow” will likely be spent somewhere else. Why invest in developing talent for your competitors?Many just discontinued investing in leader development altogether, or deprioritized it to the back burner, giving it little more than an occasional stir, thinking perhaps that we can plug ’n play leaders as we do contract engineers. Au contraire!

Accordingly, in so many cases we have foreclosed opportunities and imperiled today’s capabilities by narrowing the organization’s leadership bench. The impact of this deferred growth and maintenance wasn’t immediately obvious. But it is now. In addition to flagging levels of employee engagement, we’ve seen modest productivity growth at best, and yes, the two are related.

Perhaps the best marker lies in the struggles many have had in coping with the sudden impacts of the pandemic. Even today as we find ourselves (hopefully) on the “back nine” of the pandemic curve, many are struggling mightily to discover their new normal and re-orient the organization to it, whatever that is. Much of the struggle emanates from not sufficiently challenging our thinking and methods of doing things, like leading (as opposed to supervising!) other people. 

It seems that more and more of today’s workforce desires the former, and can’t stand to be “supervised” like a nine-year old. Go figure. Yet, no one seems to be knocking the ball out of the park (or anywhere close) on the leadership development front.

Here are three basic, somewhat counterintuitive suggestions:

  1. Grow Your Own – If your organization is significantly labor-dependent, consider the strategic advantage enjoyed by so many of the iconic labor-intense firms who’ve wisely opted for growing their own leaders… firms like Walmart, FedEx, and UPS which, together, employ about 4 million people. Any disadvantage they might endure by having to develop their leaders from the ground up is more than offset by tighter cultural fit, and by having business leaders who, from day one, have earned respect for understanding the business from the ground up. Moreover, they just might stay!
  2. Use the Best Teaching Methods, Tools & Fertilizer – Leader development must be a priority at the top. As has been the example at the aforementioned exemplars, having senior leaders spend considerable time and energy investing in tomorrow’s leaders speaks powerfully, not just to the involved leaders, but the organization’s brand. And yes, it’s a talent magnet tool. So, with all due respect for my friends in the professional leadership development ranks, get as many unquestionably successful leaders as you can involved directly with their younger or newer cohorts’ development, be it thru coaching, mentoring, in-class work, or on project assignments. You’ll be glad you did. P.S. Work especially hard at finding and developing female leaders.
  3. Love Them & Coach ‘em Hard – Champions aren’t born of soft schedules, relaxed practices, and “have it your way” coaches. Ask anybody who plays football at Alabama, pro basketball for the Warriors, or baseball for the Atlanta Braves, champions all. Top talent wants and deserves coaches who’ll invest in them, push them, and make them better than they thought possible. Be that coach! 

image credit: iStock Photo: ArtRachen01

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