Most companies make big investments in leadership development, rolling out intensive internal programs for high potentials, sending key leaders off to expensive executive education programs, or hiring personal coaches for those moving into key positions at the top of the company. But according to Milan Samani and Robert J Thomas writing for HBR, this traditional approach to leadership development doesn’t serve the needs of companies anymore. Business is moving too fast.
Our experience suggests that an overhaul in leadership development is not only possible, it’s necessary to stay competitive. What works instead? We find that the most forward-thinking companies are identifying and growing leaders in the midst of pursuing critical business objectives, as opposed to sending them off to far-flung educational programs and hoping they return with “big” insights about themselves and the world.
Here’s what we’ve learned from three pioneering companies about how to identify, grow and retain leaders to meet today’s demands:
Identify: Let them innovate
To identify leaders, start by looking for people who care deeply. Barclays Bank PLC and The Walt Disney Company EMEA are great examples. Both seek to create an environment where employees can pursue innovative business offerings to address problems that are personally meaningful.
Barclays and Disney run Social Intrapreneur Challenges – internal venture teams – across the world. Employees are invited to propose ideas for new products and services that have a business case and promise to make a positive impact on society. Hundreds of employees (the majority of them millennials) have applied in the two companies. In each case, a subset is selected to join an intrapreneurial version of a start-up accelerator. Participants work full-time on their day-jobs, but over a 6-month period they attend workshops and get expert coaching on how to develop their proposition. Time and money are limited so participants learn to enlist peers and even bosses as volunteers. They use the internet and social networks to unearth best practices, often in other industries and sectors. They pitch back to senior leadership, who then decide if the idea should be “taken off the side of desk” of the intrapreneur and awarded funding and resources to progress.
Mark Thain, Director of Social Innovation at Barclays, said: “Barclays has run such programs since 2013 and committed several million dollars to new products, services, and even a new line of business, surfacing hundreds of intrapreneurs in the process.”
And as Francois Masson, Vice President of HR for Disney EMEA, notes: “This is about business outcomes but it’s also about ‘learning-by-doing’ and creating a new breed of talent who is resourceful, versatile, purpose-driven, and stretch beyond their comfort zones.”
Develop: Let them improvise
You don’t need a new set of leadership competencies to develop leaders. It’s about giving men and women who’ve already mastered convention the room (and, in some cases, the courage) to improvise.
Take Unilever’s “UL2020”. CEO Paul Polman, an advocate of purpose-driven leadership, launched the program in 2013 in order to grow leaders who would thrive in a world of constant turbulence and change. To his mind, men and women with a good self-understanding and a high regard for followers would prove resilient and open to learning and growing throughout their careers. These qualities would hold them, and Unilever, in good stead for the years ahead. Moreover, he believed that the crucible for improvisation ought to involve tackling Unilever’s biggest challenges, like doubling the size of the business while simultaneously reducing the company’s environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact.
UL2020 enlisted managers in teams of 5 to take on big business challenges that not only had the potential to generate breakthrough results, but that would also dare them to learn new things about themselves as leaders. Participants were challenged to ask: “How can I use my company to make the world better? And, how can I enlist my purpose and those of my teammates to achieve growth and alleviate pressing societal and environmental problems?”
Teams armed with powerful tools (like systemic dynamics, mindfulness and design thinking) set about tackling problems as diverse as how to grow millions of micro-entrepreneurs, how to devise new models of city-based marketing and distribution, how to combat water scarcity, and how to empower women small business owners. Worthwhile business objectives, certainly, but what turned out to be more powerful were the collective efforts at improvisation that those crucibles spawned. For example, one team applied lessons from Unilever’s Shakti program in India to the challenge of creating jobs for the underemployed in southern Europe.
By creating compelling narratives to accompany their projects and undeniable personal enthusiasm, the teams successfully enlisted hundreds of other Unilever employees as willing allies and supporters. The results, while proprietary, have nonetheless been substantial. Millions of dollars in new revenue have been generated in less than three years. This not only helped Unilever attack some of its biggest business challenges, but equally important, while doing this work, individuals on these teams experienced a huge surge of growth and renewed vigor for their work. Participants, their supervisors, and direct reports attested to durable changes in behavior and attitude of these leaders. Each leader, as one put it, “Learned more about myself as a leader … and what it takes to enlist other people’s energy … than I had in 20 years of grinding on the numbers alone.”
Retain: Let them actually lead
Companies like Barclays, Disney and Unilever discover a counter-intuitive insight as they grow leaders: when you make targeted investments such as the ones described above, where people are being developed while working on projects of their choosing that create new value for the company, the people you invest in become simultaneously more valuable in the marketplace and less likely to leave.