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There's Never Enough Leaders Pt1

How often have I heard the refrain, ‘we just don’t have enough good leaders to help us take advantage of the opportunity we have’. Opportunity rarely is the problem. Having the capability to take advantage of it is.

A core capability of every growing organisation is leadership. Almost all organisational problems are in fact a leadership problem. Whether it is driving people productivity, strategic sales impact, product innovation, or managing an ever growing complexity in external stakeholders, leaders are central to driving growth and opportunity. This is no more true than in scale-up companies. 35% of scale up CEO’s say leadership development is critical to their success (ScaleUp Institute data), McKinsey research suggests that strong leadership capability is responsible for providing 2.3 times higher return for shareholders than those with under developed leadership, and the primary factor for scaleup failure in 23% of cases is leadership (TechNation). Leaders create the organisational culture (a combination of strategy, people systems, and core beliefs) in which all of the work of the organisation takes place. It’s kind of a big deal.

Building the right kind of leadership for your business, and scaling that leadership predictably is foundational to mid-term organisational health and performance.

The biggest challenge we face with ensuring we have the right leaders in our business is that it takes time. Leaders are not built overnight. This means that when we realise we have a leadership problem, it’s often too late. I’ve partnered with many scaleup companies who have hit a capacity and growth constraint which is largely due to the fact they haven’t invested in leadership capability early enough. Under developed leadership capability can quickly become urgent and important, which can mean it’s too late to respond to immediate challenges or opportunities. This often leads to organisations towards the irresistible lure of a recruiting drive to get these ‘more experienced leaders’, which creates it’s own challenges around cultural dilution and schizophrenia and the obvious time to full production for new senior leaders.

I believe that the multiplication of leaders is not a mystery. It’s also not especially complex - but does take investment, hard work and intentionality. It’s very possible to build an ecosystem where we can predictably develop leaders that drive the results we want.

I’m a systems thinker, and believe we should think of leadership development in terms of creating a system. So, what are some of the elements of the leadership system we need to think about as our businesses scale to build an environment where there is always enough leaders?

Define your target Leadership Model -

Every system has a clear output. An outcome. What kind of leadership does your company really need to fulfill its goals? What are the important skills, knowledge and expertise we want to multiply, and what are the behavioural values and mindsets that sit underneath the way that your leaders relate to people and their work across the business every day? All of this should be aligned to company vision and mission and has to be crystal clear. A system is only as good as the clarity of outcome we are designing for. Doing this well will also will help measure effectiveness and give us the data to continually iterate on our system design to improve outcome.

2. Design a repeatable Leadership System -

The default option for leadership development is often still, ‘let’s run a program’. No doubt leadership ‘programs’ can be very helpful at particular stages in the development of a leader to acquire specific skills required for a new role (first time manager training, executive leadership programs etc.), but alone are very limited in their predictable ability to build leadership capacity at an organisational level in a sustained way. They also tend to be quite ‘fixed’ in the way they operate and so cannot quickly adapt to the needs in the business in real time. What we need is a system that runs continually to build depth and breadth into our leadership pipeline.

An intelligent design of a leadership system structured around a repeated set of ‘touchpoints’ and ‘experiences’ creates he repeatable framework for learning to take place. The ‘touchpoints’ for those involved and should be based on understanding the different ‘social spaces’ for learning (intimate, personal, social and public space) and the expected learning ROI from each touch point. ‘Experiences’ form an integral part of the design to ensure a right balance of experience before information to stimulate hunger for the knowledge being taught, alongside creating the right learning opportunity for those involved. Great content and information without adequate opportunity for learning and application becomes redundant quickly.

3. Tailored Leadership Content -

A well designed system should be able to produce any desired kind of behavioural change for those involved in it. Your business wants a particular kind of behavioural change, and that will be driven by ensuring that the content which is ‘dropped’ into the system is targetted at developing the right skills across your leadership base, at just the right time. We should be able to have a conversation where we can identify the particular skills, knowledge or expertise we want to multiply across the business (related to our Target Leadership Model) that will most help address current needs. So we simply ensure that the system always has the right and relevant content needed to drive forwards the specific leadership capability we need to enable the business perform well.

4. A simple, aligned technology solution to support learning -

I don’t think technology alone will ever replace a meaningful process of relational learning (see my final element below), but it is an essential support to drive learning. Good technology that supports your leadership system should focus on: providing real time feedback and data on a leaders performance (both individually and in the context of the work they are doing in teams - the primary building block of organisation success); delivering reinforcing content and frameworks; and, and ability to track progress against targetted goals.

5. A deep commitment to relational apprenticeship -

Knowledge and skillsets are ultimately best acquired through the context of relationships. They provide the context to process the details of the application of ‘information’ to real life day to day working life. It's crucial for organisations to resist the temptation to neglect the personal touch in developing people in favor of technologically microwaved methods. At the end of the day, the time-tested process of apprenticeship is the most effective model for leader development. Leaders at every level need a simple and sustainable way of practicing apprenticeship with their next level leaders.

Focus and intentionality in these five areas will set you up for success in the mid-term. I’ll break each of these elements down in more detail in my following articles and focus in on the principles and practicals that will make you successful.


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