Leadership Development Is the New Black

Excerpt from “The Boomerang Principle: Inspire Lifetime Loyalty from Your Employees” by Lee Caraher.

The standard coaching line is: “People leave managers, they don’t leave companies.” I’m not so sure. Actually, I am sure. Companies that allow bad managers to flourish are responsible for good people leaving because of those managers. And in today’s world, where every company is its own talent brand, bad managers and leaders are more of a liability than ever.

Leaders provide direction, make decisions, and solve problems. Leadership is not the sole purview of those with seniority or rank. In our fast-moving, increasingly interdependent business environment, every company needs leaders at every level and in every seat.

Millennials, who now account for almost 50 percent of the workforce, are used to moving in and out of leadership positions or responsibility often, and they expect to lead in their work. Put another way, Millennials believe they can lead from any seat in the boat, and that they have it in them to lead at any moment. Lack of leadership development is a key driver of Millennials’ job dissatisfaction, and Millennials who are actively considering leaving their current positions within 12 to 24 months are significantly more likely to say that they are “being overlooked for potential leadership positions” or that their “leadership skills are not being developed.”

Modern leadership—what has evolved in the last 20 years—which features concepts including servant leadership, emotional intelligence, failing forward, and so on, is the antithesis of the command-and-control, do-it-because-I told-you-to, and don’t-show-any-vulnerability leadership models of the past. While Boomers, the “wait my turn generation,” may have been comfortable with hierarchy and Gen Xers may have been confident in their ability to make things happen without a lot of input, Millennials demand a new style of leadership that encompasses an increasingly dynamic and geographically dispersed workforce and business opportunities.

And while the oldest Millennials entered the leadership ranks in the last four or five years, they feel less prepared than they want to for the role. Seventy-two percent of the Millennials I surveyed (all in the U.S.) are unhappy with the training provided to prepare them for the leadership roles they are coming into. This is echoed by Deloitte’s international survey of Millennials in which 63 percent or respondents indicated their “leadership skills are not being fully developed.” And this dissatisfaction with leadership development correlates directly with these employees’ likeliness to leave their positions “in the next two years.”

“We are dying out here because no one knows how to inspire people to action,” shared one 28-year-old respondent from Chicago. Another respondent said: “I keep being asked to do more, to take on more large projects, but they’ve just thrown it into my lap without helping me understand how to get to the next level.” When I shared this type of feedback with a panel of senior executives, their responses ranged from rolling of the eyes to heavy sighs and statements such as, “Where’s their initiative?! No one told me how to lead, and I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years.”

Millennials are the most “instructed” generation in American history. More Millennials per capita, and, therefore, by raw number, have earned Bachelor’s degrees or their equivalent, and the 16- to 20-year-old cohort hasn’t yet graduated—that number is only going to increase. They are used to having “a class for that” and being shown where to get the information they need to succeed. It doesn’t much matter what we did in the past that did or did not work. The point is that leadership development is a capacity-building exercise for your organization. Leadership is hard, and to expect anyone to just “know how” without ample training and support is a false assumption. This has always been true. The difference is that Millennials expect leadership training regardless of their position in an organization.

Moving from a role as an individual contributor taking care of him or herself to a position of manager responsible for other people’s performance has always been challenging. Learning to lead has never been more challenging. Roughly 2 million people are promoted into leadership positions each year, and 60 percent of them fail in some way—that’s 1.2 million failures for first-time leaders. The irony is not lost here—almost $14 billion is dedicated to leadership development programs every year, and yet the return on that investment is terrible given the failure rate.

We can either keep doing what we’ve been doing and keep getting these results, or we can break out from the statistics and show our people how to lead in our organizations by mentoring, coaching, and developing them instead of training them against a standard. I pick option two: It’s cheaper, it helps deliver the results we need, and it’s an investment that will pay dividends in affinity and goodwill long after that person has left us. And my head doesn’t hurt anymore, since I’ve stopped banging it against the wall.

Different Ways to Approach Leadership Development

The most important role of a leader is to develop leadership throughout the organization, for high performers and not-so-high performers, for individual contributors who will never manage other people, and for managers of people and projects alike. You never know when someone will need to lead from the fourth seat of an eight-man boat. Following are some resources you can use to help employees at all levels of your organization develop leadership skills.

  • Leadership development courses and curricula. Such courses are abundant, and their quality is as wide ranging as the offerings. If you’re going to go down this route, know that the “trainee” will need ample coaching and mentoring to be able to apply what is taught in the classes.
  • A reading list. Curate a list of leadership books that will create a knowledge base for your organization and provide the books for everyone. Having people read the same books is incredibly effective at reinforcing shared values and behavior expectations. Bill Gates’ blog, gatesnotes, is an excellent source of inspiration for reading lists.

The Emergence of Coaching

Executive or leadership coaching can be incredibly powerful and transformative for employees at all levels and classifications, from contributor to manager to leader. And, increasingly, Millennials don’t want “managers,” they want coaches or people who act as stewards of their positions and careers; developing a strong coaching style is critical for if you want to foster both overall organizational health and positive momentum on your teams.

Coaching is becoming increasingly accessible to employees, first, because the universe of qualified coaches has exploded in the last decade, and, second, because new online platforms are providing ad hoc and ongoing coaching services at affordable prices for individuals and organizations.

Some of the organizations providing coaching via online platforms include:

  • BetterUp: www.betterup.co—online performance coaching platform for the enterprise
  • ICF: www.coachfederation.org—the International Coaching Federation, the largest organization of professionally trained coaches
  • TheMuse: www.themuse.com—online career resource, offering executive coaching services for new managers

A culture of leadership builds capacity throughout the organization and develops individuals’ ability to maneuver, contribute meaningfully, and solve problems before they escalate. Companies with a culture of leadership have significantly more capacity than those that concentrate leadership in the hands of a few senior executives.

Excerpt from “The Boomerang Principle: Inspire Lifetime Loyalty from Your Employees by Lee Caraher.

Lee Caraher is the founder and CEO of Double Forte, a national public relations and digital media agency, based in San Francisco, that works with consumer, technology, and wine brands. Caraher is a communications expert known for her business-building acumen, insights, and practical solutions to big problems. She is the author of The Boomerang Principle: Inspire Lifetime Loyalty from Your Employees


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