Leadership Incubator Lessons

Ultimately, it takes active involvement by senior leadership to develop stellar leaders.

By Gail Dutton

It takes leaders to develop leaders. That’s the No. 1 lesson from America’s top corporations. Companies that create in-house “leadership incubators” often have great success, but only if they have active involvement by senior leaders.

At Disney, “leadership drives the business. We believe most people can be leaders—people who can initiate, operationalize, and sustain ideas,” says Bruce Jones, programming director, Disney Institute. They are found at all levels throughout the organization. Letters from guests support that stance, and “our cast members say their ability to exceed expectations largely is driven by leadership.”

Maximizing ROI

The leadership incubator at Walsh Construction, a $4.5 billion, 10,000-employee company based in Chicago, was at least partially responsible for helping the company avoid layoffs and actually grow during a period when the construction industry reported 25 percent unemployment. Executives completing the Walsh Group Leadership Initiative (WGLI)—dubbed “wiggly”—have a 70 percent higher retention rate than other company executives. More than 90 percent of executives promoted into senior positions come from WGLI, according to Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting, co-developer of WGLI, and author of the 2013 release, “Leaders Open Doors.” Initially designed for high-potential candidates, other WGLI versions are rolling out now for lower-level managers and senior executives.

WGLI’s return on investment depends upon who is selected to participate. Selection begins with nominations by senior executives, followed by interviews, essays, and, finally, identification of the highest-potential candidates in that group. Not all nominees are accepted. To minimize subjectivity, candidates are ranked using a competency matrix specific to Walsh. The matrix identifies six success factors and four competencies associated with each.

The competency matrix differs from performance evaluations because it looks into the future. As Craig Atkinson, Walsh’s director of Career Development, says, “This was a view of our employees we hadn’t had before. In the weeks after (the matrices were complete), I noticed our eight senior leaders carried this data with them everywhere. This was the first time they had visibility into where the leadership strength is, who may be ready now, and who may be ready in two to four years.”

Creating a Leadership Culture

As Lisa Anderson, president and operations strategist, LMA Consulting, says, “if senior leaders conduct the training, it’s clear the training is important.”

Treasurer adds that the responsibility for leadership development can’t be outsourced. “Outside training is valuable, but it should honor the culture as it exists and leverage best practices from outside.” Therefore, tailor off-the-shelf programs to the company and engage senior leaders to deliver the content.

“Most learning happens in real time, on the job,” Jones stresses. “Adults learn best when they have a context for learning. The idea is to experience it. At Disney Institute, we refer to our parks as working laboratories, taking learners behind the scenes to see how Disney’s best practices actually are applied.” Additionally, he points out that Disney Institute trainers all have diverse experience at Disney. “They speak from a first-person perspective.”

That first-person perspective is crucial, so access to top executives is one of the distinguishing features of the 18-month WGLI program. “The night before each of the 12 workshops, the participants and the company owners meet for a fun, informal dinner at different Chicago restaurants,” Treasurer says. The full-day workshops (with pre-reading assignments) feature internal and external guest speakers discussing such topics as leading culture change, managing risk, strategic thinking, coaching for high performance, and leading with courage. Senior executive participation in every session provides intimate access to senior leadership, increases participants’ visibility, and offers otherwise unavailable perspectives.

Past Is Prologue

The Disney Institute also counts history as a leadership tool. “Look within your organization,” Jones advises. “Walt Disney effectively demonstrated that the actions of one leader, multiplied by the actions of many, can reshape a culture and an organization.”

For example, Jones says, “When Walt Disney created the idea for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the 1930s, he gave his animators money for dinner in the cafeteria one evening and then gathered them all around the sound stage. Walt spent three-and-a-half hours telling them the story of Snow White, going into character for each voice. Walt shared the vision. We ask our participants, is there anything Walt did that you can’t do? Is there anything he didn’t do? What they recognize is that Walt didn’t just share the plan and the budget. He shared the vision, and that resulted in perhaps the best animated feature of all time.”

The culture created by Walt Disney continues to guide the organization’s values. “People talk about people being an asset,” Jones points out. But, in the aftermath of 9/11, layoffs in the travel and entertainment industry were rampant. “Disney chose not to lay off anyone, saying, ‘We’ll figure it out creatively.’ That set the tone throughout the organization, and those sorts of decisions are made daily.”

Super-Charged Mentoring

Leadership incubators emphasize the importance of soft skills in addition to technical skills, LMA’s Anderson says. “Those skills often are developed through mentoring.” At Walsh, every WGLI participant has a mentor from outside his or her direct reporting relationship. Even the company owners are assigned people to mentor. “Mentoring isn’t just having lunch,” Treasurer emphasizes. Mentorship exposes executives to complex situations they otherwise wouldn’t see for three to five years.

Initially, the mentoring program at Walsh was ineffective, Treasurer recalls. “But when we required protégées and mentors to journal about the experience and submit the journals to us, the program became super-charged. The journals drove accountability and helped track progress.” After reading the journals, “we’re bringing in a writing coach to use these documents as source material to help attendees improve their writing skills.”

When Treasurer and Atkinson discovered dual coaching, WGLI got another boost. With an internal mentor and an outsider (Treasurer), participants gained additional insights.

One of the hallmarks of leadership incubators is their acceptance of risks. In terms of leadership development at Walsh, Treasurer says, that translates into a willingness—and expectation—to stretch beyond one’s comfort level to lead an internal audit, write a white paper, or accept other opportunities to showcase abilities. That inadvertently helped build a tribe within a tribe. “WGLI participants communicated with each other offline, partnered, and coached each other even outside the program,” Treasurer says. Consequently, some of the interdivisional rivalry is lessening.

Making Leadership a Top Priority

Programs such as WGLI can be replicated, incrementally, by smaller organizations. “The organizations that are best at growing leaders aren’t necessarily those with big budgets,” Anderson stresses. Instead, they are organizations that consider developing their people as leaders a top priority. They create opportunities for employees to use their new skills, and they applaud innovation—even when it sometimes fails. Importantly, they also support the development of soft skills, understanding that too many technical experts fail simply because they can’t adequately communicate their ideas. And they recognize that, ultimately, leadership incubation requires
leadership involvement to succeed.

Where Leadership Development Goes Wrong

  • Senior leaders aren’t actively involved.
  • Objectives aren’t identified.
  • Development isn’t part of an ongoing effort.
  • Programs focus on the process, not the outcome.
  • Participants lack opportunities to quickly apply their new skills.
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