“You know we’re not done yet, right?”
This isn’t exactly what Tom had hoped to hear. But he has a feeling Katie is right. They’re sitting in their conference room immediately after launching the company’s initiative teams. Tom feels pretty good about their work so far. His team had set leadership bench strength goals, assessed their leaders, and carefully engaged each initiative leader in both the task and the development opportunity of their work.
“You mean we could still screw this up?” Tom says with a slight twinkle in his eye.
“Well… yes,” Katie says. “Now we have to follow through on this developmental approach to strategy implementation all the way through the year. Otherwise, we could forget about this and just go back to getting tasks done. And then…”
“We end up right where we started. With too much work to do and not enough proven leaders to do it.” Tom finishes Katie’s sentence. She nods, smiling.
Here’s how you ensure all of that investment of energy yields your desired results at the end of the initiative cycle.
Make leadership development progress a normal part of project updates. When your executive team reviews status of key in-flight initiatives, be sure they are informally gathering feedback on each initiative leader’s contributions. They can look for indicators such as:
- Are all initiative team members actively engaged in the work of the team?
- Is there evidence of constructive tension in the team?
- Do team members have the resources they need to be successful?
- Is the team performing against its targets?
After the formal status updates are complete, stick around for an extra 30 minutes to discuss as an executive team where certain leaders are excelling, where others are struggling and how – as mentors – you’re going use that information to coach each leader.
- Ask and be ready for honest feedback: It’s easy for mentors to overlook issues in the leaders they’re supporting. Instead of having each mentor tell you how wonderfully their team leaders are doing, try having the rest of the executive team do a quick vote on how well each person is achieving results and modeling the organization’s desired behaviors. There’s nothing like someone saying, “I see a few areas for growth” to kick up the creative tension.
- Assign Mentors a clear coaching mandate. Within 24 hours of the status update, each mentor should have a debrief conversation with their assigned initiative leader(s) where they share the combined observations of the executive team. Whenever possible, follow the rule of thumb of sharing three positive observations for every constructive criticism. But don’t avoid those more difficult conversations. Your best performers hunger for quality, timely feedback that will make them better. This is your chance to give it to them.
- Senior leader check-in: The most senior leader (not HR) should check in with each mentor on how those coaching conversations are progressing. Clever senior leaders keep a private log of the progress of mentors in developing their protegees as a way to provide their own feedback to those mentors.
Make successful participation in the leadership of strategic initiatives a key to advancement. If you want to surface hidden leadership talent, make it obvious that full participation in both the task of implementing the initiative and the process of developing others is a key stepping stone to bigger and more exciting things in your organization. Of course, the mandate to be an excellent developer of talent should extend to initiative sponsors too.
When you promote someone or give them a juicy new assignment, make a clear connection between both performance and talent development in your rationale for the decision. When you delay someone’s progress, make the same connection to them in private. When you’re working with your executive team, insist on this bi-dimensional look at candidates. Pause one person’s career progression or accelerate another’s and you’ll soon have people’s attention on this issue.
You don’t have to be a victim of the leadership shortage long term. You simply have to connect two disciplines that rarely meet – strategy and leadership development. That way, leaders get developed without ever leaving the job.
But don’t stop there. Yes, using initiatives as leadership development opportunities will help you and your company get more stuff done over the coming years. You may even get lauded when you leave your company someday for all of the results you achieved. Less seen but maybe even more valuable will be the investment you’ve made in building up these people. That success will keep echoing in your company and many others for decades into the future.