Why organizations underachieve in leadership development

The road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same – Colin R. Davis

A recent report pointed how India Inc. spends so much on leadership development and succession planning, and still ends up importing CEOs from the outside. This is especially true of the technology sector. A lot of money and resources are going down the drain.

Why does this happen?

My assertion is this : The very context that organizations create for leadership development within their walls is dragging them down.

Leadership development efforts are structured for

1) ensuring self-contained internal success.

2) escaping every stage, ongoing feedback from an external environment.

And this creates a spiral of inconsistencies that feed off each other and jeopardise leadership development.

We will examine five inconsistencies that flow from how leadership development efforts are structured for ensuring success and escaping feedback from an external environment.

1)  A Predictable hierarchy that has no bearing on unpredictable success.

Leadership development requires a set hierarchy, a ladder with clear rungs visible to everybody from the bottom up. People need to see how they are going to rise. Every hierarchical rung is invested with organizational power. The challenge is that people now script stunning success that is both career-defining and leadership-forming in positions that do not correspond to this hierarchy. The digital marketing head is right where the future is being shaped where as his boss, the Marketing Head represents the best of the past. Success demands that organizations devolve powers to where the action lies. Thus, people lower down the ranks are gaining the significant experience, but people higher up the ranks are in the leadership pool.

2)  Internal Competition for fewer top positions prevents authentic collaboration.

The Pyramid narrows up. If an employee decides to stick to an organization for good, the employee becomes very competitive in his or her quest for leadership success. Many years of experience has made the employee adept at knowing how the company or the system really works. This knowledge is put to use in avoiding authentic collaboration with a potential competitor. Organizations believe that internal competition is useful in spurring a higher level of performance. And as far as meeting the numbers is concerned, it does happen. But this performance is nowhere close to what authentic collaboration can bring about. Authentic collaboration is the crucible of spectacular success, the kind that throws up quality leaders who have already learned to carry everyone together.

A worldview that loves to dramatize two rivals – be it the sales achievers or the star recruiters or the advertising whizkids – sees internal competition as a performance enabler. What new horizon is visible if we see through a different filter, not the filter of competition?

3) Sure wins discourage real risk-taking

Organizations engineer sure wins to boost the confidence and self-belief of their leaders. For every leadership development plan, ask – what is the real chance of failure in percentage terms? Usually, it is minimal. We know this to be anecdotally true because whenever we find somebody with a real risk of failing, we comment how the boss wants him or her out. Stretch goals are aptly named. One can stretch by staying in the same position.

4) Hi-po retention does not lead to cutting-edge self-development.

High-potential performers, the would-be leaders of tomorrow are a privileged lot. For every self-driven high-potential performer selected for fast-track leadership development, there is another  performer who now wants to ease up a bit. Only the most ambitious high-potential performer demands learning exposure that pits him or her against the very best. Most high-potential performers feel they are now on an auto-pilot with a readymade check-list of actionables to execute. They stop thinking for themselves and adhere to a set plan, a given agenda. They stop asking – what needs to be done? They start asking – what am I expected to do next? Complacency sets in. Sure wins reinforce their halo and retain them by design. Retention dulls the edge of performance!

5) The organization serves as a protective and ossifying shell for the leader.

The leader, just like any employee, lives insulated from the external environment. Just as a fish cannot conceive of a life without water, a leader cannot  conceive of true capability that is independent of their own organization. The organization protects the ego and self-belief of its leader. But if leaders have no means of self-evaluation vis-a-vis their peers and counterparts in the industry and functional domain, the same protective shell becomes one in which leaders stagnate. How good are our leaders is a question best answered if one can visualize them doing their stuff cutting across boundaries. The more high-profile, specialized a leadership development plan, the more the risk of it degenerating into an ossifying shell if the external environment is exerting new demands on the industry and the organization. In other words, the external environment, the outside is where the dice is being rolled and the numbers are changing. The playboard we have kept inside is our own invention. The two may not fit at all!

In my next article, I will propose what steps can be taken to counter these inconsistencies.




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