Developing Leaders on the Cheap

Author: Bill Catlette | Source: HCI | Published: March 6, 2013

Entering the fifth year of diminished emphasis (aka budgets) on leader development, many organizations are running dangerously close to the trip wire where bad things start to happen as a result of having a less aware, less skilled management team.
Consider the following instances that demonstrate the effect these cuts continue to have on organizations and their workforce populations:

  • Veteran leaders at all levels (the seed corn) who have been absorbing the shock of ever-greater responsibility are voting with their feet.
  • In increasing numbers, people are taking a pass on the “promotional” opportunity to move from individual contributor to management status due to the lack of training, and position insecurity (the two are related).
  • By most objective measures, worker loyalty, engagement, and trust in leadership continue to wane. Owing to a nascent job market, workers aren’t yet leaving in large numbers, leading to a toxic brew in many organizations.

While it is understandable that cramped learning and development budgets preclude certain developmental activities, it doesn’t stop all of them, or even some of the very best. Here’s but one example of the kinds of things we can do to significantly move the needle with our leader development initiatives without breaking the bank. Moreover, done correctly, it will actually make your life better as well.
Going Dark (sorta)
Since the advent of 24/7 connectivity, many young and rising leaders have had their development shortchanged by the near-constant availability of their reporting senior. If an issue or the need for a decision comes up while the boss is away, it is entirely too easy to reflexively reach out and and defer to them.
Many of today’s leaders actually pride themselves on being constantly available, and personally touching every single item that comes over the transom. What they are losing sight of, aside from the very definition of leadership, is that their hyper-connectivity is depriving people on their team of the opportunity to make a decision, execute, and learn from it. At the same time, they are depriving themselves of some needed peace and quiet, or time for higher yielding activity.
Full flaps, brakes, whoa, stop! I am not advocating that one day you just decide to suddenly disappear and then peek over the fence to see how it turns out. No. Instead, your connectivity “brownouts” should occur only after some preparatory conversations with your teammates and your own boss, in which you frame out the types of situations you are- and are not-willing to delegate on the fly, the level of accountability assumed by the staff member, and your support for them. One great place to start this is in conjunction with your own vacation.
Emanating from FedEx founder Fred Smith’s military experience, promotion from within at that company (including the entire management structure) is doctrine to them. At the time of my involvement during their startup and adolescent period, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, as financing the growth of the organization was sucking up all the cash. Hence, we used large dollops of responsibility instead of formal training as a crucible for identifying, shaping, and testing leaders. By and large it worked well, just as it has for the military.
During that project, my teammates knew that I would periodically stand aside as a way of giving them the opportunity to learn and show their stuff. If they really needed me, all they had to do was say so. But just like a parent teaching their child to ride a bike, I really would let go of the bike and let them have their way with it. No helicopter bossing.
They were told that, when taking initiative, as long as they were doing what they genuinely believed to be the right thing, I had their back. I got the chance to prove that a few times by keeping executive micromanagement at bay, and that’s what leaders get paid for.
A few guidelines to develop new leaders in this way:

  1. Selectively (one at a time), give the ball to a team member as a developmental measure. Be a smart quarterback by calling the play and ensuring that everyone is in position before the ball is snapped.
  2. To the degree necessary, make sure your boss is in the loop.
  3. Rotate the duty so that staff members get the kind of challenge and exposure they need and deserve.
  4. Conduct robust “after action reviews” to celebrate successes, clean up messes, and learn from the mistakes.
  5. Figure out how best to use your newfound time.

Bill Catlette is an author, leadership trainer, speaker, and human resources consultant with 35 years’ experience helping build highly successful organizations. He is co-founder of Contented Cow Partners LLC, which has served more than 300 organizations in numerous industries by delivering customized keynote addresses, corporate leadership training, and employee engagement surveys. In addition, Bill is the co-author of the Contented Cows Leadership book series, including the newest publication, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth about Employee Engagement and Your Bottom Line.