Building Successful Leadership Development & Talent Management Strategies

Posted: August 23, 2011 by Alison in Articles/Essays
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By Patrick Bradshaw

There is a strong internal drive, not just within HR, but also within the entire organization to bring current talent to the next level of leadership. The urgency lies within internal transformation, driving competitiveness and the organization’s achievement towards its strategy and goals.

Mr. Thomas (TJ) Hammond is the Director of the Leadership Institute at the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).  He provides strategic and operational program direction and guidance for workforce initiatives and development.  TJ joined USSTRATCOM in July 2004 as a member of the training division.

TJ answered a series of questions, written by marcus evans for the forth coming 7th Annual Talent Management & Leadership Development Conference. All responses represent the view of the Mr. Hammond and not necessarily those of the United States Strategic Command.

Questions: What are the principle concerns that need to be looked at when designing a leadership development program to solidify organizational success?

TJ Hammond: First, and I can’t stress this enough, get your senior leaders to define success.  Don’t waste time discussing metrics or measures of effectiveness, but rather get senior leaders to define or describe an ideal or well-tuned workforce in their own terms. Then use their definitions as a guide to set benchmarks for the leadership development program.

Our leadership development program at U.S. Strategic Command serves two main purposes: to improve current leadership skills and to build bench strength for future leadership positions. A second principle concern that should be considered is that leadership development is a team sport; you can’t build bench strength without the individuals, the front line managers, and the senior leadership all buying in to support the program.  The individual and senior leadership buy in is obvious, but the front line managers are key to make sure there is a connection between the individual and senior leadership.  Managers must provide on-the-job tasks that align and support the development of the individual.

Leadership development is no longer a classroom event; it is now a blended exercise between classroom and real business problems.  Consider for a moment the simplicity of this: If a leadership development program is focused on the competency of decisiveness, but the front line managers don’t delegate and allow employees to be decisive, then the impact of the program is missed, or worse could have zero impact on the individual.  The concern of shared commitment, or as I call it a team sport concern, shouldn’t be overlooked or marginalized, as emerging leaders will learn the most when they’re given real work to do.

The third principle is follow-through. I recommend a personal touch approach; so get out and interview senior leaders across the organization to get a clear and broad perspective of shared concerns and issues related to leadership skills. This interview is the starting point.  You need to determine what skills are valued in the organization and the relative degree of importance for each skill.  This calibration process across the organization provides a strategic roadmap and ensures alignment within the strategy and goals of the organization.  Once you are armed with the calibration information, make sure you follow up with those individuals you interviewed to clearly show how the leadership development program is aligned to the organization’s priorities and goals and supportive of growing the necessary bench strength for future leadership positions.

A last point to consider in the design of a leadership development program is the connection to performance assessments. I recommend alignment to performance, but to separate the supervisor and employee discussions on performance and development. In our organization, we offset discussions by 6 months. Our rationale is that performance appraisals are a review of past accomplishments, and development discussions are focused exclusively on future growth and development.

Questions: What pressures and challenges does rapid growth pose for leadership programs?

TJ Hammond: A key challenge of rapid growth in an organization is the promotion of people into leadership roles for which we did not prepare them for via our development program.  In other words, people get thrown into the deep end and we only hope they can swim. In his book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, John C. Maxwell states, “leaders cannot rise above the limitations of their character”. He explains that the people who rise to high levels of achievement may be setting themselves up for disaster if they do not have the type of character needed to deal with the stress that comes with that position and power.

A key pressure on leadership programs is to effectively build leaders of high character fast enough to meet the demands of organizational growth. A key challenge we face is how to support the transition as one is promoted from an individual contributor to a leader.  Necessary skills for success change dramatically, therefore your leadership program must be flexible enough to support, not just the growing of the bench strength, but also provide performance support to the new and existing leaders in your organization.

Questions: How can a company’s talent management strategy be aligned to senior leadership goals for maximum impact?

TJ Hammond: An obvious but very important first step is to know the leadership’s vision, goals and strategies for the organization and to break them down into actionable pieces.  Next, contrast your development program against the organizational strategy and goals. Building a competency-based model tends to make this task easier as you can then break down goals and show competencies aligned with specific goals.  I’d recommend an initial competency assessment or inventory of employees to determine resident skills and talent. A key point for alignment is to collaborate with key leaders to determine which skills are most valued by the organization and aligned with success.  A final point is to determine which skills and abilities your organization has an appetite to develop and which skills and abilities must or should be bought (i.e., recruited and acquired through hiring channels).  I believe in development and that almost all skills can be learned, but the key constraint is time; will your organization be patient for skill X or Y to be developed?

Questions: In your view, is there a lack of urgency in organizations to improve performance based on the idea that current level of leadership skill is adequate?

TJ Hammond: Yes and no.  Some organizations are still in recession mode and this is definitely the case. Organizations tend to not notice a lack of leadership skills until it smacks them in the face; I often explain this lack of notice by telling the well-known “boiling frog syndrome” story.  The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. However, if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The moral of the story in this context is that organizations are frequently unaware of inadequate leadership skill levels until it is too late.

Another common trapdoor many organizations fall into is the day-to-day urgency of tasks; however, savvier organizations recognize the impact leadership development has on the future workforce and view it as a strategic investment not to be traded for the everyday urgent matters.  I am privileged to work for an organization where there’s an instinctive, almost intuitive belief that leadership skills need to be continuously improved.

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