If You Want Your Leaders to Step Up, Get Off the Step

stairsA familiar lament heard among senior executives these days is “I can’t get my potential leaders to step up and champion new strategies to attract new customers and beat the competition.” Whether the comment comes from seasoned veterans or newer leaders building new organizations, all of them appreciate the greatly accelerated competitiveness of the global economy. To deal with it, these executives want serious help from their leadership teams.

Or do they?

Actions speak louder than words. Senior executives who do not take the time to champion significant growth opportunities for their potential leaders will find themselves continuing to shoulder the burden of building the company business. In short, they have to put deliberate and serious energy into building a leadership pipeline.

For a senior executive to demonstrate seriousness about building a leadership pipeline, potential leaders need to experience three critical elements from senior executives:

1. They need to experience firsthand the challenges of senior leadership:

For potential leaders to grow into a senior executive role, they need to experience its challenges. To get them there, senior executives must create opportunities that will take the upcoming leaders out of their comfort zone. A couple of examples:

Example 1: Leaving potential leaders to run ongoing projects, deal with existing customers and report on the work to their direct manager will not get them to that next level. Moving them into stretch responsibilities that require them to identify, engage and deliver the best work from persons outside their usual team will.

Example 2: Putting potential leaders on the front line to deal with a new or dissatisfied customer carries with it some business risk. However, without that scary and real experience, it will be hard for them to integrate into their business consciousness the wide and even wild array of possible customer demands. Instead, they will be solving customer problems and inventing new ways to satisfy customers without the most critical data needed to get there, i.e., the customers themselves.

2. They need to receive senior executive feedback:

Fundamental to building leadership behavior is feedback on how they are doing. Sending potential leaders into new situations will produce new behaviors, both constructive and not so constructive. Providing perceptions on how a potential leader did in front of an important senior executive committee or how new team members reacted to the way the potential leader ran a meeting are vital to professional growth.

This concept sounds simple, were it not for the fact that too often executives do not take the time to give that feedback. The reasons are many, varying from not knowing how to give feedback to seeing the giving of feedback as leading to conflict. In fact, conflict avoidance often lies beneath reluctance to give feedback. Opinions will differ on how a situation should be handled, however, the conversation on how things went can surface learning not only for the potential leader but also for the executive.

Without feedback, the assignment of new responsibilities to potential leaders is squandered.

3. They need to see room on the senior executive step:

As scary as it might be for the upcoming leader to move into new executive experiences, it may be even scarier for the senior executive to allow the potential leader to take on that responsibility. If the senior executive does not move off the senior leader step, the potential leader has no room to step up onto it.

There is a thin line between providing guidance and hovering. In the example of putting the potential leader in front of a new customer, the senior executive who chooses to step into the situation stands to dis-empower the potential leader.

Of greater consequence, is that the action of the senior leader stepping back into the situation, signals to the potential leader and to all other potential leaders in the company that the senior executive does not really intend to give up his or her authority. The result will be a disengaged potential leader who may give up on leadership development, seeing it as not real, or worse, leave the company. Others might follow.

There are definite circumstances when the senior executive’s absence might put the customer relationship at risk, but the senior executive needs to weigh the costs and benefits.

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