By Julie Benezet:

A familiar lament heard among senior leaders these days is, “I can’t get my leadership team to propose, let alone champion new ideas to beat our competition and attract new customers. They just submerge themselves in ongoing projects and leave me to do the heavy lifting.”

Whether the comment comes from senior leaders of mature or emerging organizations, all of them grapple with the greatly accelerated competitiveness of the global economy.  To win in this environment, they need to leverage the talent of their leadership teams. For that to happen, they must invest time and energy in building their team’s strategic and risk taking abilities.

But do they?  Actions speak louder than words. The same senior leaders who complain about the failure of their teams to step up and contribute to strategic company growth too often fail themselves to make the time and commitment needed to support such stepping up.  As a result, these senior leaders will continue to shoulder the full burden of building the business.  Not only does that lose the value of the ideas of others, it is also exhausting. One person cannot carry the large load of company growth and expect it to be delivered.

To exit this self-defeating pattern, senior leaders must put deliberate energy into instilling into their leadership teams the importance of embracing new ideas and behaviors that lead to evolutionary growth.

Toward that end, emerging leaders need three critical elements from senior leaders:

1. They need to be given opportunities that allow them to experience firsthand the challenges of senior leadership:

To develop into a senior executive role, emerging leaders need to experience firsthand its challenges. Toward that end, senior leaders must create opportunities that will take the upcoming leaders out of their comfort zone.

A couple of examples:

Example 1-Move them into new work and new teams:  Leaving potential leaders to run ongoing projects, deal with existing customers and report on the work to their direct manager will not get them to the next level.    Shift them into new initiatives with new or a different mix of team members. To succeed they will have to spend time learning new personalities, team dynamics and motivators.

Example 2-Move them onto the front line of new or unhappy customers:  Putting emerging leaders on the front line to deal with a new or dissatisfied customer carries with it some business risk. However, without that scary and real experience, it will be hard for them to integrate into their business consciousness the wide and wild array of possible customer demands. Success requires them to learn and satisfy evolving customer in a way that will benefit the customer, your business, and shed light on future strategies. They also may have to learn new behaviors to deal with conflict and become aware of the cost of conflict avoidance.

2. They need to receive senior executive feedback:

Fundamental to developing leadership ability is feedback on how the emerging leaders are doing. Sending them into new situations likely will produce new behaviors, both constructive and not so constructive.    Providing perceptions on how the leader did in front of an important senior executive committee or how new team members reacted to the way the leader ran a meeting are vital to professional growth.

This concept sounds simple, were it not for the fact that too often senior leaders do not take the time to give that feedback.   The reasons are many, varying from not knowing how to provide feedback to equating giving feedback with conflict.

Conflict avoidance often lies beneath reluctance to give feedback.  Opinions may differ on how the situation being reviewed might have been handled, and that can lead to disagreement.   However, addressing different viewpoints is healthy.  It can benefit not only the emerging leader, but also the senior leader in deconstructing and creating stronger outcomes, both for the company and the leaders.

Without feedback, the assignment of new responsibilities to potential leaders is squandered.

3. They need to see room on the senior executive step:

As scary as it might be for emerging leaders to move into new leadership experiences, it may be even scarier for the senior leader to allow them to take on that responsibility.  Nevertheless, if the senior leader does not move off the senior leadership step, the emerging leaders have no room to step up onto it.

There is a thin line between providing guidance and hovering.  In the example of placing emerging leaders in front of a new customer, the senior leader who chooses to step into the situation stands to disempower the emerging leaders.

Of greater consequence is if the senior leader steps back into the situation, it signals to the emerging leaders that the senior executive does not really intend to give up his or her authority.   The result will be disengaged emerging leaders who may eschew leadership development, seeing it as not real, or worse, leave the company. Others might follow.

While there are circumstances where without the deeper experience of senior executives the customer relationship is at risk, the senior executive needs to weigh the benefit to the customer against the cost to the long-term development of the leadership team.

Leadership is about taking chances, and that includes taking chances on emerging talent. The smart senior leaders will take those chances, dedicating to the process of bringing up the next generation of leaders with the same deliberate focus they have given the company mission. In the end, all will benefit.

By Julie Benezet is the author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None

©2017, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

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