Building a successful leadership pipeline – 7 things I learned the hard way

In 2010, I was hired by a European multinational company. My initial task: to engineer a program to develop their top 100 leaders and give rise to a more pronounced performance culture within the company.

It was a personal and professional challenge, and I grabbed it enthusiastically.

The company was growing and expanding both organically and through M&As, and the European economy was still doing fairly well. We had firm support from the board and senior leadership team. The leadership development program quickly took form, building on a framework of existing initiatives and programs and using both internal and external resources.

I was expecting that it could become difficult to implement a truly universal leadership program for the entire company, which employed staff and leaders in about a dozen European countries. Operating a program for leaders from such diverse countries, with different histories, cultures and languages – I knew there would be things that I would have to figure out under ways. And I was prepared for having to adapt parts of the program as it progressed and as we learned more about the effectiveness of the individual learning segments.

I was not prepared for having to completely rethink important elements that I, until then, had held to be more or less universally true and effective.

In retrospect, this was of course a good thing to have happen. I learned quite a bit over the following months. And I was reminded of several things that I already knew about leadership development, but that I at the time had come to neglect:

  1. It’s vital to have good support and buy-in from senior management, but it’s not enough.  In order to create a successful program, it is equally or more important to get the support and buy-in from local leaders at an early stage.
  2. A top-down concept and approach can work well, but can never be unilateral. An ideal leadership development program can (and arguably should) be centrally run and funded, but needs to be locally owned and operated in key aspects to be fully effective.
  3. It’s important to have accurate maps of the landscape before launching the program. It’s great to have a well-designed, well-funded and logistically sound program, but you will likely fail if you don’t include the understanding and perspectives of people on the ground regarding the learning topic. Take the time to observe and learn from the people who actually do the job and who know your processes, products, people and customers. In the case of leadership development, make sure you have a firm understanding of what leaders on the ground understand with key terms such as “leader”, “leadership”, “delegation” and “accountability”, and of what a leader “can and cannot do” as part of their corporate role and function.
  4. Make sure that all important stakeholders have the same understanding of program goals, benchmarks and timelines. You will need this whether the program is successful or not, and you will likely not be able to renegotiate this once the program is operational.
  5. Make sure you have a firm value base for the program, its benchmarks and operational goals. The likelihood of success (and program sustainability) increases significantly if your program is firmly grounded in a highly visible and operationally meaningful mission, vision, and set corporate values. This will answer the important questions that will be voiced from all levels and parts of the organization as the program unfolds – notably why, how, when and who. You need to be able to answer these question well and with legitimate conviction.
  6. It’s personal. Make it part of your schedule to visit and network with your stakeholders and constituents locally and centrally throughout the organization. Spend as much time as you can doing this, and it will always be worth it. But you should always do more. It is not the program in and by itself, but the relationships you build that will determine whether the program will be effective and successful.

Recent key indicators show the economy starting to exhibit new signs of life. That’s good news. The bad news is research shows many organizations in the US and across the globe cite bolstering leadership bench strength as a major workforce challenge.  As business begins to accelerate and companies rapidly expand their product and service strategies into neighboring countries and emerging economies, they often falter when it comes to constructing a solid leadership pipeline.

At Corporate Elements, we have considerable experience developing internal and external leadership development programs – locally, regionally, and globally. We partner with you and your organization to strengthen your existing leadership pipeline.

The Leadership Challenge® is our flagship leadership development program. It is based on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® discovered through intensive research into the leadership competencies essential to getting extraordinary things done in organizations.

Contact us at (218) 329-0836 or by email at ole@corporateelements.com to schedule a free initial consultation.

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