There is a distinct lack of imagination among many businesses when it comes to developing the next generation of leaders. All too often, when the best and brightest minds get their chance to lead, their effectiveness in the role is hampered because they're unable to see the bigger picture.

Serious competitive advantage is being lost, not to mention talent wasted, as bad habits and shortcomings are allowed to become ingrained over the years. Rudi Kindts, Former Group HR Director of British American Tobacco, says: “The ideal development for the C-Suite begins early in a manager’s career. Through a mix of experiences (strategic, commercial and leadership challenges), hard-nosed performance feedback and coaching combined with a willingness to listen and learn, future leaders understand what it means to transition from one leadership level to another.”

It’s unwise for those managers who are destined for greater things to be left for too long as masters of a particular channel or area of operation. They should be tested and challenged and, importantly, encouraged to question themselves, meeting new people through networking, so they are consistently seeking to improve their knowledge and ability to inspire others.

Gary Kildare, Vice President of Human Resources for Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific at IBM, says: “It is evident that the level of global thinking and citizenship required from leaders today is absolutely unprecedented. They can help to provide a view of the future through their creativity and vision; it is they who will encourage collaboration through teamwork and open access… Leaders must be able to shift from strategy to operations swiftly to ensure they can execute regardless of the business environment.”

Match fit

In practical terms, a manager who is moving to an executive or even non-executive role has to accept that a different approach will be required. Fiona Briault, Retail Director for George, the clothing chain of Asda, says: “I thought long and hard about how I would flex my style and behaviour as I moved to a board position… The focus required a shift from [resolving] business challenges to asking the right questions to stimulate others to debate and find solutions.”

Executives need to have their horizons broadened. Mark Phillips, SVP for Medicine and Process Delivery at GlaxoSmithKline, comments: “You have got to be able to provide insight and context and that has to come from a broader understanding around the company. That means the environment you’re operating in; what you’re trying to achieve as a business and from customers and business partners.

“The bottom line is that, as you go up the corporate ladder, it’s not about you doing it but getting other people to do it. A lot of that comes from understanding where to make the connections and how to unlock things – if you think you’re going to do it all by yourself then you shouldn’t be in the role as you’re restricting the bandwidth of the organisation.”

Nandani Lynton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Adjunct Professor of Management at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says that it’s a case of putting talented individuals into various front line situations. “Senior execs should be allowed to experience the day-to-day reality of another market… You don’t need a structured development programme to organise this – one day a year would make a huge difference.”

In addition to this, she suggests that “high potentials” could take responsible positions within voluntary organisations for a year. “They will learn how to influence without power, how to deal with egos in a different setting and gain experience of the NGO [non-governmental organisation] view that can be extremely helpful in the future.”

Support mechanisms

This level of commitment is notable by its absence in the majority of companies. Jacqui Grey, Managing Director of leadership and executive coaching company, Transition Ltd, comments: “Whilst [individuals] are happy to present and go to conferences, the idea that they may need any form of development is often overlooked. There is a tendency to do this outside of the organisation either by attending a top business school ‘one off’ course in an exotic location, or by engaging an executive coach where human frailties may be discussed in private.”

A business must have clarity about what it wants from its designated 'special ones'. Neil Braithwaite, Managing Director for Specialist Retail at the Co-operative Group, comments: “In looking to develop their current and potential business leaders, organisations should first ensure they have the right foundations in place. This means having a clear definition of the leadership model that is right for them, such as what are the behaviours that define a good leader in an organisation.

“There should also be a strong performance management system that clearly identifies high performance and potential, allied to a mature approach to succession planning, matching gaps and potential exposures to the development needs of key individuals.”

If this is to work effectively, it must have full endorsement from the existing leadership team. Neil explains: “For development programmes to succeed, not only do they need to be built with solid foundations but also, and probably more importantly, they need the demonstrable commitment of the CEO and the most senior management in the business.

“This can take many forms, but fundamentally it requires them to take some risk in pushing good people to stretch themselves away from their comfort zone to ensure they really broaden out as leaders.”

The consensus from discussions with Members of the Criticaleye Community is that sound leadership qualities are created by:

•    Effective communication – From being able to inspire all levels of staff to engaging with the media, clarity and visibility are expected from leaders

•    Networking – Future business leaders aren’t afraid to leave their comfort zones. They are keen to meet new people and, in addition to this, they will be eager to gain experience by shifting to different areas of the business, taking on secondments elsewhere and being assigned challenging projects in order to develop agile thinking and problem solving skills

•    Personal awareness – Invariably, businesses make the mistake of teaching technical expertise first, while people skills and emotional intelligence are deemed secondary

•    Mentoring / coaching –  Whether they’re inside or outside a company, having someone as a sounding board can lead to fresh insights

•    Walking the ‘shop floor’ – Diversity of experience is invaluable, but the best executives are also in touch with customers, products and the services of a business

None of this is to suggest that technical expertise and training programmes are not to be held in high regard. Of course they are but in the competitive global markets that companies operate in today, it is simply a fact that this is no longer enough and that the best leaders need a more rounded set of skills and qualities to be successful.

Gary Browning
, Chief Executive of HR consulting and people performance company Penna, says: “Good leaders must communicate with inspiration and passion, building trust, belief and engagement throughout the organisation. Engagement is one of the closest factors correlated to organisational performance. This, I believe, is harder to develop but it’s not impossible to get improvements.”

The fact is that anyone aspiring to a position of leadership within an organisation cannot be one dimensional. Mark comments: “If you have only achieved in a particular area and dabbled in another, I struggle to understand how that is going to make you capable of being a senior leader. There are very few senior leadership positions where your value depends purely on the expertise you bring in one area.”

Excellence is a given. Leadership requires something different and a large number of companies continue to misunderstand and underestimate what is required to forge individuals who can drive and deliver outstanding results. 

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

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