On thin ice: break past the C-suite barrier

24 June 2016

Using extensive research from Korn Ferry Hay Group, Rick Lash, senior partner and expertise leader at the company, discusses whether the C-suite is a barrier to effective leadership development programming across an organisation and how to overcome it.

If CEOs ask senior leaders in their organisation to grade the company's leadership development efforts, they may be surprised, and somewhat disheartened, by what they learn.

For a recent Korn Ferry survey, the company asked 7,500 executives, from 107 countries, to assess the results of leadership development investments in their organisations - the majority rated them only "fair" to "very poor". Perhaps most surprising, and something of a wake-up call for CEOs, respondents cited "lack of executive sponsorship" as the chief roadblock to leadership development success. In other words, it seems that CEOs themselves are standing in the way of progress.

In addition, only 17% of respondents - 26% of whom were C-suite executives and 31% of whom were VPs/SVPs/EVPs - were confident their organisations had the right leadership capabilities in place to execute on strategic business priorities.

Bottom line

Respondents are expressing that leadership development is not generating tangible value, and this is likely because of a bottleneck at the top of the house. The problem is not about investing financial resources - there's plenty of that - but about ownership and accountability by the senior-most individuals. Organisations often state that people are their most important asset. If that's the case - and we assume the best of intentions - this asset needs to be safeguarded and supported like any other. If this message resonates with you, consider the following suggestions to promote rather than impede development efforts and reap the benefits.

While there are many excellent leadership development programmes, they are not in themselves sufficient; the journey must carry over into the real world.

Don't think of leadership development as a stand-alone process

When most effective, the process is inextricably linked to the business strategy and crucial to its success. Too many organisations treat leadership development as an appendage - a 'nice to have' rather than the essential element that it is. Strategic business needs will determine leadership profiles required and development should be tailored accordingly. It's all connected to a company's business outcomes and results need to be measurable, like any other critical business process, such as supply chain, marketing, finance and sales, for example.

Shift your mindset and that of the leadership team

The CEO and his or her team should be collaborating to create a deeply ingrained culture of talent development - a joint journey, not a 'to-do' list item managed separately by the CHRO. Just as the right fuel is required for an engine to work at maximum efficiency, so effective leadership development is required to ensure an organisation has the skills and pipeline bandwidth to address any gaps required for organisational growth.

Take a lesson from some of the world's best-run companies. Their CEOs make major time investments knowing who their top talent is and involving their executive teams in determining how best to develop them. Talent management is seen as an integral part of the business planning process with HR acting as the equal partner along with other key business functions. Which leads to next critical point.

Skate to where the puck will be

To paraphrase the famous words of Wayne Gretzky, CEOs need to know what leadership success looks like in the future - and it's not simply taking today's successful leadership qualities and projecting them forward five years. They need to deeply understand the mission-critical roles that are key to achieving the company's strategic goals - those complex jobs that require a long runway for growth and where the organisation cannot afford to have people in those roles who are still in development. These CEOs know that the leadership qualities for success today may be the very things that will stop leaders from being successful tomorrow. And they also know the key experiences today's leaders need to have to ensure they are ready when they get there and ensure the organisational supports are made available to develop them.

And no matter which industry you look at, that future is digital - from pharmaceutical companies increasingly looking like software companies, to fast-food outlets served by robotic chefs or old companies like GE leading the way in the industrial internet - all are struggling with how to build agile organisations and simplify their cultures. Data analytics are becoming core to an organisation's success, and leaders of the future will need the highest levels of strategic and integrative thinking, the capacity to perceive and act on the early signals change in a volatile global economy, and deeply engage others around a compelling purpose. Developing those capacities requires the power of an aligned organisation committed to growing its leadership over an extended period. No one other than the CEO can fill that role.

Leadership development happens in real time

While there are many excellent leadership development programmes, they are not in themselves sufficient; the journey must carry over into the real world. Your business is the laboratory for leadership development, making it, in essence, a living case study that is continually unfolding.

Leadership development creates the avenue to the business results you desire. It is less about judgment after the fact, and more about proactively building and supporting the right operating capabilities so that the odds of achieving desired outcomes are significantly increased for the organisation and for the leaders themselves. Said differently, there should be an obvious and direct link between leadership development, activation of the business strategy, and what the leaders actually deliver.

Skate to where the puck will be: to paraphrase the famous words of Wayne Gretzky, CEOs need to know what leadership success looks like in the future – and it’s not simply taking today’s successful leadership qualities and projecting them forward five years.

In fact, many best-in-class organisations may not explicitly promote leadership development, but focus instead on the need to continually transform their business - and leadership drives transformation. It's no surprise that up to 30% of what analysts value in a company is based on the perceived quality and capacity of its leadership to meet future business demands. Organisations can't survive without continually transforming themselves. They recognise that leadership development is not an end in itself, but an enabler to drive better business results, and they hard-wire their leadership development efforts to solving pressing business challenges. If organisations could find easier ways to improve their performance, they would have discovered it long ago. But if we have learned anything from the past five decades of leadership development research and practice, the most successful organisations differentiate themselves on the quality of their leadership. Better leadership leads to better results. Leadership is the secret competitive advantage for any organisation that wants to win in today's hyper-competitive global economy.

Strive to become a leadership academy company to gain advantage

Think of effective leadership development as an insurance policy on the success of your strategic priorities, and a valuable tool in recruiting and retaining the best talent in the market. The highest-potential executives are those who most want to build their leadership skills, expertise and overall careers. Moreover, instilling a leadership development culture will almost certainly give you a leg up on your competition.

Korn Ferry's research indicates that leadership development is one of the most under-used levers for strategic change and creating a strong employer brand. Organisations want to attract the very best and brightest by showing they are great places where aspiring leaders enable opportunities to grow and develop.

To achieve the desired results, leadership development must be led by the CEO, and top leadership must continually send direct messages about its importance, model the right behaviour and remain engaged every step of the way.

The research presents an important message to organisations - developing world-class leaders can't be outsourced to consultants or the HR department. CEOs play a critical role in driving the leadership agenda and with clear, concrete steps, CEOs can increase the odds of success, improve ROI, and ensure they are not part of the problem but rather the key to the solution.

Rick Lash is the expertise leader for the Korn Ferry leadership and talent practice in Canada. Lash has over 25 years of experience working with clients in the design and implementation of organisational change interventions that accelerate and maximise the learning process.