That Leadership Bench Won't Grow Itself

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That Leadership Bench Won't Grow Itself

Better than half of newly appointed, first-time business leaders fail in their first two years, resulting in their removal from position, either voluntary or otherwise. I hesitate to wonder how many more are left to quietly and more slowly drown on their own.

If new doctors failed at that same rate, hospitals might find it necessary to build larger morgues to temporarily house their mistakes. In the business world, we wonder about persistently low employee engagement levels and why, in an era when there are more microchips deployed than ever, our national productivity growth rate remains mired in the basement. Subprime leadership from ill-prepared managers has a lot to do with it.

By the time a new physician is allowed to practice medicine on their own in the U.S., they will have completed seven to twelve years of post-grad medical education, complete with certified, hands-on training, medical residency, and strict licensure protocols. By contrast, elevation to a leadership role in most organizations (including healthcare) is a lot quicker. It often goes something like this: When there is an entry level management position vacancy, the job will often be awarded to a team member who is recognized by virtue of their production, seniority, or butt kissing skills, not necessarily in that order. Overlooking the fact that moving from individual contributor to leader is one of the hardest career transitions to make, the promotee is often informed of the good news on Friday, and told, “You’ve got all weekend to get ready.”

Though I am a strong proponent of promoting from within, we owe these people more, a lot more than simply blessing them with corporate holy water before we put them in charge of a significant chunk of our business, and ten other humans. Aside from seeing to it that they possess requisite factory-installed leadership qualities like judgment, courage, resilience, and humility, there are at least four other things that they need to be working on from day one (preferably before).

  1. Learning to be a good listener. Many new leaders want to work on their presentation skills (likely the result of having endured some really crummy presentations), and they should, but far more leaders flame out because of bad listening skills.
  2. Becoming a master of their time and priorities. First and 2nd level leaders spend most of their day drinking thru a firehose, with more stuff coming at them then they can ever digest. If they don’t quickly become a master of their priorities, they will drown. Part of the battle in managing one’s priorities pertains to having the courage and the wisdom to say “No” to things that belong on someone else’s plate or whose time has not yet come. At the core, managers get paid to think, and if there is no thinking time available to them, they cannot succeed.
  3. Realizing that leadership is not about them. Repeat, it is not about them. Rather, it’s about the mission, and the team. “First, you feed the troops.”
  4. Developing good methods by which they might properly recruit, select, and coach top quality teammates. For some crazy reason, most of us seem to assume that these skills are factory installed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Two thoughts about meeting this need: First, when pinned down about things that keep them awake at night, CEO’s invariably list the relative shortness of their leadership bench, to wit, if an honest review of your learning and development strategy and associated budget doesn’t reveal serious attention being committed to leader development, you’ve got real work to do.

Second, and more immediately, please don’t let another day pass without shoring up the support mechanisms for newly promoted leaders. Make that one of your priorities. If, like many you lack the internal resources to deliver even the aforementioned modicum of new leader development at the point of need, seriously consider pairing emerging leaders with professional leadership coaches, who can act as their Sherpa for portions of the journey.

Whatever path you choose, get on with it. Time is not your friend, that bench isn’t growing by itself, and competitors are gnawing away at it.

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