Leadership 103: Building a Leadership Program

If, by now, you have decided to place greater emphasis on the internal and external recruitment and development of potential leaders for your organization, keep the following in the back of your mind throughout the process:

  • Leadership training and development is a continuous and evolving process. Having disjointed, one-day leadership seminars and random efforts to instill leadership principles is like having one-day brain surgery “how to” classes. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There must be a commitment to a total and dynamic program, not a “hip new age” day of personal introspection and inspirational self discovery (“Attendees are asked to bring their own crystals and to leave ‘bad vibes’ at the door. Soy toast and herb tea served at breaks”).
  • Leadership candidates aspire to the leadership role, they are not assigned by others. A selection process must always choose from among volunteers, not those who have been volunteered (Let’s get rid of Jones, he’s useless. Hey! Let’s put him in the leadership program. Yeah, that’s the ticket).
  • Leadership is a commitment requiring senior-level sanctioning, senior-level budgeting and a progressive plan to insure proper utilization of your leadership development candidates within the organization. Leaders know when they are not wanted or are merely being tolerated. You must either get the corporate leadership team on board and make good use of those candidates, or forget about it (“I don’t care if you are a member of the leadership program. You are being transferred to the mailroom as a junior stamp licker!”).

Let’s look at how to plan and develop an effective leadership program by considering a few of the important areas with issues that need to be addressed. Ownership For anything to survive in business it needs a champion. The more powerful and higher placed the champion, the more likely the program will survive. This should be especially evident considering the draconian measures many companies took during the current recession to cut costs and frills. But unlike “Bagel Thursdays” or “Family In-House Picnic Fridays,” a leadership development program is not just the end result of a fat economy and inflated budgets. It is a strategic program with long-term goals and ramifications. Those ramifications add up to a total waste of time and money if the program inflates and deflates with the frequency of a charming, but non-essential, hobby. Without proper insulation from the day-to-day ups and downs of corporate fortunes, a leadership development program could easily find itself on the chopping block every time a nervous CFO is trying to save a couple of dollars. Leadership is an investment in the future. As long as your company believes it has one, it should leave it’s leadership development program intact, if for no other reason than to ensure that the future is worth having and that you will have leaders in the future to capitalize on that future. There are also the day-by-day issues of a less catastrophic, but equally damaging, impact on the success or failure of your leadership program. Apathy and “lip service” is a common outcome in business for any program that senior and middle management do not see as either personally career enhancing or career damaging. All elves of authority and decision making in your organization must know from what level the interest in your leadership program emanates. In other words, who is going to get angry if they ignore or marginalize the program? The charter or ownership for the leadership development program must come from your most senior executive management team. A committee of executives, not unlike a corporate board, should be designated as the oversight and enforcement vehicle. They do not have to be involved in the daily operations, but they must be seen as the guiding force behind the project. The charter should be forwarded to all employees, inserted in your employee handbook, be posted on bulletin boards, and be part of your corporate internal and external website. (“We seek leaders” is great recruitment branding. Not a bad thing for your customers to know either.) The charter should be renewed annually and resubmitted annually. A leadership development program should not, and cannot, be allowed to fade into the background as “last year’s pet project.” Budgeting The leadership development program costs should be carried as a corporate cost. These should include:

  • Recruitment
  • Training
  • Salaries of program participants

This not only insulates the program from the budget cutting efforts of groups, divisions, or other corporate entities, it also serves as another indicator of the corporate commitment and the assumption of support. Since the line managers do not control the cost, they realize they are not “judged” by that cost in their efforts to manage their own budget. Of course, the cost may ultimately appear as a “charge back” in one form or another, but not unlike mandated IT charge backs, managers realize that they are not held accountable for cost control on fixed mandated budget items, and therefore do not resent it. In addition, managers often ensure they capitalize on any fixed costs they cannot control: “Hey, if I have to pay for it, like it or not, then I am going to get my money’s worth out of it.” Levels A good leadership program has levels. In a perfect world all your new entry-level hires that qualified for a corporate leadership development program would, during their 20-year careers, move through all program levels. But with the rise and fall of turnover, this cannot and will not always be the case. The fear of turnover, after all, is often the biggest excuse not to fund employee development programs. Yet there is reason to believe that if you have a respected program in place, and if people see themselves embedded in that program that ensures their personal growth as long as they work and improve, it is not unreasonable to assume that this population would have a smaller turnover rate than your corporate average. Are these not the employees you would most like to keep? If the program has stages based on entry, intermediate, and senior experience levels, this gives you the capability to identify employees at various stages of their employment as leadership candidates and insert them into the program, thereby increasing the chance of retaining their services for a longer time than corporate averages would suggest due to your continued “investment” in them. It also allows you to insert external hires based on the level of their career at the time of hire, giving them the same opportunity to rise within the organization as those hired right out of school and right into the program. In the middle ages, when there were no schools and nationally enforced standards, there were trade unions, which were based on each recognized trade. Each trade union established its own guidelines. Most developed a three-tiered training program that has parallels in today’s business word:

  • Apprentice: Entry level of today
  • Journeyman: Intermediate of today
  • Craftsman: Management/executive of today

This three-tiered approach to dividing the levels of instruction and timing in a person’s career makes sense even today. By creating a leadership program with stages, you follow the path of a time-tested and successful tradition that was so efficient that it preserved skills and crafts during a time when there were no formal training programs. Each level should include a period, or periods, of intensive training followed by reinsertion into the prescribed occupation with ongoing training. It’s similar to the National Guard’s required obligation, in which, after initial boot camp, the recruit owes two days a month and two weeks a year to continued training. Curriculum It is impossible to design one curriculum that will serve all companies equally, this is a customizing process and companies would be well advised not to merely look for “industry norms” or borrow a friends “leadership guide.” First of all, that assumes the person you “pirate” from did it right themselves. If they really worked on it, I doubt they would allow it to be copied in the first place. But you need to consider the following in developing your plan:

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  1. In-house training capability. It may not be a good idea to ask the person who does your IT training to assume this responsibility. Based on the size of the program you are developing, you may well need to hire a full-time trainer to develop and conduct all in-house training. This has to be a dynamic person with the ability to project confidence and leadership themselves. If you work in a smaller organization with limited training resources, then you may need to sub-contract to a consulting firm that specializes in this field.
  2. Academic support. You may want to approach a conveniently located business school with the proposition that they design and develop a three-tiered course, lecture series, seminars, and testing for a non-degree program and develop a pay-by-use tuition program. This gives the schools opportunities to give work to their professors and graduate students, and assists them in maintaining a significant contract with the “real world” of business to keep their own degree programs real. The courses could still be given either onsite or at the school. Schedules could be developed that capitalize on those times when semester breaks, vacation breaks, or other offline times make the school personnel and facilities available.
  3. Reading list. a list of books, professional periodicals, magazines and websites should be developed and constantly reviewed that are specific to your own industry (and better business practices in general) to assist the members of your program to develop a deep and embedded knowledge of their field, craft, and best practices. There are, for example, several noteworthy sites that are in essence updates on the “who’s who” in business. This is a good way for your leadership candidates to follow the pathways of existing leaders (not a bad place for you to recruit from either).
  4. Guest lectures. Identified leaders in your industry or premier authors and speakers on the topic should be invited to your site for a day of lecturing and question and answer sessions.
  5. Onsite progress meetings. Routine, unstructured meetings allow leadership development candidates to meet ó either by level or as one group unified ó to review progress, ideas, issues, concerns, and to make recommendations and suggestions to improve and upgrade the program. After all, they are future leaders; their input is critical.
  6. Offsite challenges. There are several outdoor activities that assist in leadership development and team building. These can include:
    • Problem solving courses that confront a team and the team leader with a simulated task, limited tools, and a time limit.
    • “Working Crew” cruises and other recreational activities where the development program participants have to work and function in an unfamiliar environment. Windjammer cruises, non-luxury, often require passengers act as crew on deck and work in the galley. This also allows excellent bonding and team-building among your future leaders.
    • There are many non-lethal survival programs and other personal and group challenges that cause dormant or developing leadership skills to arise.

    (There may be concern that the above may limit the ability of employees with physical challenges to participate. Not true. Most of these outdoor programs have incorporated accessibility into their development. This obviously adds the ultimate realism as it requires non-challenged employees to resist making decisions based on traditional stereotypes, and makes the physically challenged employees more comfortable in dealing with their co-workers in difficult circumstances. A win-win situation for both parties.)

Another element of the curriculum is the time leadership candidates spend “on the job.” The comments of their supervisors and peers on performance and development are critical. Selection The program should have annual start dates at all levels to ensure you do not make the management of the program or the tracking of candidates within the program overly cumbersome. There should be an annual enrollment announcement directly to each employee. They should be permitted to apply without the approval of or comments from their current manager. For this reason the application process should be centralized and not managed at the division level. The application and selection process can also be part of entry-level hiring and college recruitment program. However, as stated earlier, the candidates need to volunteer and not be encouraged to apply merely as a “good way to make a good impression.” You are looking for leaders, not politicians. Selection needs to be developed for each company based on its own history of what has been the successful “leadership profile” for the company. But consideration should include:

  • Work or academic record
  • After work or extracurricular activities of a philanthropic nature
  • Recommendations from current or past managers, or other persons of authority
  • A self-explanation of their motivation and goals for joining such a program
  • A written examination that seeks a propensity for leadership (I recommend that a third party manages this process to avoid “test-the-test” issues).
  • Results from an interview before a “selection committee” of three or five people (this committee should consist of persons from all business areas with outstanding leadership records).

An employee should be allowed to reapply as often as they choose. Failing to be chosen once should not be interpreted as a “death blow.” A good selection process provides feedback on the areas that may have negatively impacted their selection and affords them a chance to improve and try again. This also allows for those who may be slower in developing than their peer group, but who ultimately can catch up at the “next go around.” Utilization On the job, it should be made clear that leadership candidates still have to turn in a day’s work and keep a good work history with their current manager and peer community. A good leader may be seen as a “person apart,” but the truly great leaders have always been those least likely to be called aloof, a “prima donna,” or a snob. Although the program management team must be aware of the potential for jealousy or pettiness to impact the evaluation of leadership candidates from these sources, it must also remember that it is a necessary skill for true leaders to overcome the weaknesses of others and to bring those persons “to a better place.” As such, when not involved in annual, monthly, or weekly training sessions, the leadership candidate is as much a member of the team as any other and subject to their manager. Career Development To insure personal growth for the successful leadership candidates, slots must be set aside at all levels for promotion for this group. The candidate must meet the criteria of an employee and a program candidate to advance within the company. But provided they meet your expectations, the positions to grow into must be available to meet theirs. As your program matures and the success and failure rates become more clear, it will be a simple process to estimate, based on attendees at all levels, how many positions at what levels need to be reserved as they open for the aspiring leadership candidate. The solution to those employees who feel that a set aside of 5%-10% (my approximation) of growth positions for leadership candidates is unfair is to apply for the program. In addition, as long as your are only promoting those in the program based on their dual success as both an employee and a leadership candidate, then you are, at worst, guilty of promoting those with the greatest demonstrated effort and success (Shame on you!). Intermediate and senior members of the program should ultimately be assigned a “leader peer” within the organization who is a success in the chosen field of the candidate to provide additional input to both the candidate and the oversight committee. This leader peer should insure that every effort is made to accommodate reasonable expectations on the part of the candidate, as well as reasonable expectations of the company on the part of the candidate. Junior or entry-level candidates can have this same need met by the training staff of the program. Early in development, it is better not to restrict the candidate’s vision and perception of their options. The annual review of employees and the annual review of development candidates should not occur at the same time. Having the review staggered six months apart will prevent evaluating leadership candidates as just another administrative chore for managers during the worst time of year, annual reviews. Plus, it serves to better define the program as a separate entity. Release and/or Termination It is possible that an employee who fails at developing leadership qualities and may still be a good employee and a good candidate for management. Not all your managers need to be leaders, and not all your leaders have to be managers. It is therefore essential that both through the administrative process and through common practice you show that an employee’s career can survive not be retained in the leadership program. Sell the program to your employees for what it truly is: a value-plus to employees with a capacity to lead, not a mandatory prerequisite for success. But you must establish benchmarks for success and failure, or else the program offers no real value in developing future leaders. Leaders are by nature competitive. But I recommend you establish a objective formula, not one based on “the curve.” You want to maintain a constant quality requirement for leadership candidates to insure there are no fluctuations in the overall output of the program. The evaluation should mirror the selection process. This ensures that candidates don’t develop a “once your in, you’re in” state of mind. Conclusion The development of a leadership program for your corporation can be a lot more to you, personally and professionally, than merely another project to “slap together.” You never know, the first recognized graduate of your corporation’s new commitment to leadership development just might be YOU! Imagine that, elected and you weren’t even running. The only thing left to do is come up with the school song. My favorite has always been “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, but maybe that is not sufficiently academic. Maybe something by Led Zeppelin would be more “Ivy-ish.” Have a great day recruiting (leaders)!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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