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This Is What Your Managers Want in a Leadership Development Program

Managers are some of the most important people in your entire organization.

There’s a whole host of reasons why.

First, people leave managers, not companies. In fact, Gallup's State of the American Manager report found that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

When employees feel saddled with a manager who makes their lives harder, they have limited options. Getting things done becomes difficult – and they can find themselves managing conflicts that have little to do with their accountabilities.

This can lead to high levels of attrition among your most valuable contributors.

But that’s not all. Managers who aren’t effective create huge opportunity costs.

A good manager should:

  • Set examples for others by living company values and behavior.
  • Foster commitment to the company’s vision, purpose, and goals.
  • Focus others’ efforts and key resources where they matter most.
  • Provide avenues for others in the organization to become leaders.

That’s a tall order. And most people are unprepared for it at the start of their career.

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Whatever might be said for someone’s natural emotional intelligence, a leadership development program is what’s really needed for managers to tap their full potential. A program should have the needs of first-time managers in mind and grow with them as those needs change.

It’s certainly possible to get leadership chops on the job. But when companies fail to provide a formal leadership development program, what they’re asking managers to do is piece together their own leadership philosophy on the fly, leading to inconsistencies and conflict.

And, of course, some managers may never take the time to do it.

A leadership development program ensures your teams won’t suffer turnover and performance issues by becoming someone’s “learning experience.” Instead, everyone in the team has the chance to benefit from proven frameworks for leadership from the beginning.

With all this in mind, why don’t more enterprises have a leadership development program?

Setting up an effective, efficient leadership development program can be a challenge. It requires you to call on your existing leadership capital, adjust your HR policies and career development paths, and make a sincere, ongoing commitment.

Here are the six elements you need to make it all work.

1. Use Mentoring to Prepare for Tomorrow’s Challenges Today

If there’s one common element that links successful leaders, it’s the power of mentoring.

Mentoring may be the single most powerful factor that can acclimate leaders to their role fast. That’s because it has the unique benefit of ensuring that you never have to reinvent the wheel, no matter where you stand in your leadership journey.

Hearing directly from others who’ve been where you are has huge benefits:

  • Mentees can ask questions to their mentors to adjust course on pressing challenges.
  • Mentees have exposure to higher levels of leadership and more strategic thinking.
  • Mentees feel a personal connection with mentors that helps motivate their success.

Interactivity and personal “give and take” are the critical factors that make mentoring effective. It’s a good idea for the mentoring aspect of your program to facilitate regular meetings – enough for individuals paired in the program to genuinely understand one another’s views and situation.

2. Establish Parallel Tracks for Management and Solo Contributors

Not everyone has the desire to lead, but most are still interested in growing professionally!

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Until very recently, there’s been a widespread assumption that leadership is required for career advancement. The traditional org chart has entry level employees become assistant managers, then managers, then contend for the director level (a traditional bottleneck).

Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work for all people or all organizations. Forcing excellent solo contributors into leadership roles can deprive them of the productivity that makes them stars. At the same time, their teams lack the leadership momentum to do their best work.

The solution for many organizations is a parallel track in leadership development.

This is becoming more common in software companies, where masterful software architects are not always the best managers – nor do they wish to be. By providing dedicated solo contributors with resources centered around their own development path, they achieve more.

At the same time, those who aspire to leadership can move onto a more conventional track that includes progressive management of people and teams. Likewise, people on either “track” can move to the other as their interests develop.

This not only improves leadership outcomes, but makes it easier to see at a glance which of your solo contributors are the shining stars in their team: Just look at their progress within their own development “universe.”

When this approach is missing, organizations can become flat and their org charts become misleading. Many people may hold the same job title, with nothing to clearly delineate their goals or growth. That makes it harder to allocate the right people to the right projects.

3. Provide the Opportunity to Understand the Entire Business

As leaders grow, their ability to grasp the enterprise’s underlying business drivers is paramount.

Those who “grow up” to be executives don’t generally spend their whole lives in a single silo of specialization. They need to understand how strategies will affect various departments, divisions, and the people within them – including how those people can collaborate effectively.

Knowing that, a leadership development program should spark exposure to the whole business.

This can begin in very simple ways, no matter a manager’s skills or background.

Simply look at the organization in terms of teams that need to cooperate, then put rising leaders in charge of building bridges to help them do it. For example, a developing sales leader can be the point person who helps share sales insights with the marketing team.

By broadening their field of view, managers have a chance to see interrelationships others might miss. They should be encouraged to take their observations to higher level leadership and even develop proposals. Smaller initiatives are useful laboratories for applying leadership skills.

4. Deliver a Focus on Principles Rather Than on Tactics

Lots of people I’ve met have this complaint that dates all the way back to grade school.

Everyone remembers going to math class. At first, math is pretty easy: You can count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. You even get a shiny gold star at the end of the day. Cool, right?

But something weird happens around third grade or so. Questions no longer make sense like they used to. The explanations sound weird and don’t seem to apply meaningfully to the problems.

You can still get to the answer – but you might stop understanding why it’s the answer.

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When kids ask, “When are we gonna use this?,” that’s what they’re really getting at.

What does this have to do with your leadership development program?

Simple: If you want your program to work, don’t make the same mistakes your math book did.

It’s not enough for leaders to know and apply individual tactics – the arithmetic of day to day business problems. They also need to understand the principles behind them. This is especially important for millennials, many of whom see context as essential to delivering their best work.

Rote memorization is out. Holistic leadership is in.

And that means understanding why something works, not just how it works.

Effective principles can be conveyed in your leadership development program in many ways:

  • Allow mentors to convey them to mentees in a structured way in one-on-one meetings.
  • Develop training videos that you can release at scale through online learning platforms.
  • Hold live events, such as end of year conferences, where leaders can share best practices.

Of course, before you can launch programs around your principles, you have to know what they are. Leaders – including frontline managers – should get into the habit of documenting and sharing lessons learned. Knowledge can come from successful (and not so successful) projects.

5. Consider Starting Employee Resource Groups

Of course, adoption is a major part of making a leadership development program successful.

There are basically two ways to get people into a program like this:

  • Provide leaders at all levels with tools to recognize high potential leadership candidates.
  • Establish a framework by which those who aspire to lead can self-select and take action.

For the best results, both these approaches should come together within your company.

Employee resource groups (or ERGs) are employee-led organizations where people get together on the basis of similar interests, skills, or background to help one another achieve more.

For example, many of the most successful ERGs focus on identifying women who are candidates for leadership and empowering them to take steps to rise further professionally.

This is incredibly helpful because it allows both individuals and affinity groups to take concrete action for self-betterment. This fosters greater commitment and engagement, which ultimately leads to two core results: Better performance and higher retention.

But the benefits don’t end there.

One of the most crucial outcomes of ERGs is they help motivate people to consider themselves potential leaders. Employees who might never have thought about leadership roles can access resources through their ERG as a gateway to a formal leadership development program.

For example, the more intimate and connected atmosphere of an ERG may provide opportunities for team members to practice their presentation skills. This, in turn, may give them a greater sense of confidence they can trade on as they explore professional growth.

6. Clarify Career Growth Trajectories Enterprise-Wide

Even if you don’t have the resources to enact a leadership development program, there’s still something you can do right now that will turn many more employees into leaders.

Ready?

Help them figure out how to become leaders.

Many organizations don’t have formal career planning. They might have inconsistent or non-existent documentation on individual job roles. Not surprisingly, this creates a lot of confusion about what people need to do if they want to progress.

Simply by codifying the skills and competencies team members need at the different levels of their career, you can ensure they are more likely to take proactive action and seek out skills.

This, in turn, means more people will be forging a path forward in their career at any given time. That will naturally lead them in the direction of greater leadership responsibilities.

Leadership Development Is Vital to Getting the Most From Your Workforce

Investing time, money, and attention in your talent base can keep you on the cutting edge of your industry. A leadership development program distinguishes you as an employer of choice, which helps you cultivate your existing personnel and recruit high-impact candidates more easily.

And that quest begins with fostering leadership in the frontline management team members you have right now. With these six areas in mind, you can build a leadership development program that will have real relevance to the challenges your managers face.

In the long run, that means more of them will excel – and so will your business.

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Rob Steffens

Rob Steffens

I am the Director of Sales & Marketing here at Bluleadz. I'm a recent newlywed who enjoys spending time with my wife vegging out and binging our favorite shows or getting some exercise on the Racquetball court.