By | Hema Ravichandar | Strategic HR Advisory, former CHRO Infosys Ltd
The results of our first global benchmarking study conducted on the Baldrige framework had just come in, at the turn of the century. Software services firm Infosys had only recently listed on Nasdaq in 1999 and was eager to check out the robustness of its management practices for performance excellence on the framework’s key dimensions, including leadership, strategy, customers and knowledge management.
The results drove home the criticality of formal leadership development to create a strong pipeline of leaders to take the organization into the next decade and beyond of blistering growth. The emphasis was, first, on defining and deploying a leadership system and, then, on developing, mandating and institutionalizing leadership training for all levels of leaders. The responsibility for this focused effort was assigned directly to the chief executive officer (CEO); a true reflection of the importance given to leadership development in the framework.
And that is precisely the point. Most organizations realize the need for, and importance of, leadership development and invest considerable financial and time resources on it. And yet the unsolved puzzle in so many cases globally is that programmes that companies so enthusiastically embrace fail to get institutionalized in the DNA of the organization or last in the long haul.
Having seen several organizations both as a practitioner and a consultant, here are the main reasons I think these programmes fail.
u When leadership development is adopted only in letter, and not in spirit.
Organizations do not hesitate to invest significant resources on the infrastructure—the facilities and campus, programmes, even faculty. Yet if the DNA of the organization remains essentially that of command and control mode, with tight decision making at the top, the efforts are bound to yield disappointing results. In contrast, when an organization culture encourages a high degree of empowerment, and allows leaders to make and learn from mistakes, the spirit of leadership development thrives.
Take the case of a fast-growing company and the formal leadership journey that it embarked on. Two years on, with considerable time and energy invested by leaders, the programme had been designed and was all set to roll. The detailing had been done, including the required proficiency levels for various competencies, for different roles, and the most appropriate development initiatives for each identified leader. Even the financial approvals were in place. And then the next quarter tanked, and financial considerations immediately saw the programme being shelved. Yet, that was probably the time when the programme was needed most to help the leaders steer the organization through turbulent times. It would have been more appropriate to continue with the initiatives while re-engineering the programme’s financial design more innovatively for cost-effectiveness.
This burial is even easier if there is, simultaneously, a departure of key stakeholders like the leadership development head or the chief human resources officer. And then, if the board wakes up and pushes the company for a leadership talent strategy, hey presto, we have an all-new framework with organization-wide assessments starting all over again. During high growth phases, initiatives like leadership development are easily consigned to the back-burner. If such cycles become the norm, it would come as no surprise if this blow-hot, blow-cold attitude turned the organization and talent cynical about the programme. Investing a significant portion of time and resources up front on the basis of a needs analysis, and designing a system that can withstand the test of business cycles and CEO transitions, is advisable.
When the programme agenda is driven by an entitlement culture epitomized by seniority or favouritism, instead of embracing employees with the highest leadership potential, the output is bound to be flawed. Employees who have hit Peter’s principle need to be firmly passed over in favour of talent with head space for growth lying maybe two levels down the hierarchy. This calls for firmness and courage from those driving the initiative in asking such “seniors” to step aside because they are truly beyond the pale of the initiative.
u Focus on the wrong areas for leadership development.
An organization that recently ran into a profitability crisis found that while earlier leaders were doing the right things, the next generation of leaders were doing only a sub-set of those right things. The company thus ended up being successful in one dimension but weak in others. The company had not consciously identified the leadership behaviours for success around which the next generation of leaders should have been developed.
As a corollary, leaders performing those roles need to be measured for and developed in those competencies. A one-size-fits-all programme can only end up being below par.
u Ineffective programme management can trip the initiative.
A strong programme manager will pull it all together. A great design is not enough in itself. Without the seemingly mundane jobs of follow-up, closure and knowledge management, the results will be suboptimal. This should also involve smoothening any tensions that could arise in the triad of coach, boss and employee.
While positioning is important, there can be a loss of credibility if, in the final analysis, those who embrace the initiatives are not seen as being rewarded; in contrast, those who shun or ridicule it are. Take a leap of faith and up the responsibility quotient for the newly minted leaders. Else, it could be a case of “all developed, and nowhere to go”. Reinforce the programme by making individual development plans a living document, reviewing and refining as required.
“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile,” said Vince Lombardi, the American football player, coach, and executive. Do ensure that your organization’s efforts to make leaders do not get derailed.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.