5 Ways to Grow Your Leaders

Dec 06, 2021

“At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategies.”

Larry Bossidy

Every client I’ve had in the last decade eventually works around to the issue of “How do I improve the talent of my team?” In my experience, there are only three good ways to answer this question: 1) hire better; 2) grow your people; or 3) both.

In other words, it always comes down to your people, doesn’t it? It’s almost impossible to overvalue talent. Whether we’re talking football, construction, a small not-for-profit, or a giant global business—growing and developing your people into great talent eventually becomes a priority.

Over the years I have helped hundreds of organizations think about growing their leaders. Here is a distilled framework I have used.

1.) Establish a leadership greenhouse

Build a culture that expects all leaders and managers to be self-developing and growing others. In other words, you have to constantly define and redefine leadership. Make sure your company understands that growth is the norm, not this.

Remember that development should be a mindset and not a seminar. As this Harvard Business Review article points out, having a leadership development culture means thinking ahead, developing strategies and plain and simple, making a commitment to “make people better.” Here’s five ways to put that commitment into practice.

2.) Benchmark the start

Make an objective and subjective judgment to index a starting point. Use any tool you want but get the starting point fixed for you and for each of your employees. When are you starting? And what are you measuring? As tennis great Arthur Ashe simply said, “Start where you are.”

You are benchmarking the mind, muscle, and hunger of each team member. And always keep in mind that you need employees with certain skill sets during certain cycles and others during different cycles. But typically, someone’s intelligence, their work ethic/stamina, and their hunger are the universal qualities you need to develop as a leader.

3.) Define what you mean by growth

Be specific and clear with your expectations of their growthWe agreed you should grow in this area, over this time, and we will measure it this way.

Pick only one or two growth traits at a time. Employ the big categories of soft and hard traits, character, skill, behavior, and attitude, and then drill down to delegation, finance, listening, hard conversations, asking questions, etc. One of the mistakes people often make in leader building is to stay too high and inspirational, chasing some perfect picture of leadership. Instead, find one or two specific things to work on.

But always keep agreement in mind. Over time, people implement what they understand and buy into.

4.) It’s about the process, not the epiphany

It takes more than an epiphany for people to grow and change. It takes a process. Yes, an epiphany moment, a “Wow! I never knew that before!” can get us off high center but it can’t hold us. It takes some combination of urgency and weight to drive sustainable change.

The process must be customized to the company and the individual. On the company level, the process must fit your culture and context. Every company has a culture that guides the organization’s life and workflow. For example, some companies/organizations are more academic and intellectual while others are more pragmatic and utility based. Some are driven by top-line growth, and some are more wired to micromanaging the bottom line. Some are more formal, and some are more relaxed.

On the individual level, consider an individual’s learning style, appetite, background, experience, as well as the areas where you think that person should grow for his or her own benefit and to fit the needs of the organization. Any development process must fit the person. That is why stock solutions usually don’t help senior leaders. They need customized solutions.

Finally, make sure the process is practical. Are the resources (time, money, expertise, mentoring, etc.) in place? How is leadership development going to be part of the daily workflow? If it’s an add-on to all the other job responsibilities, the leader begins to dread it. The growth plan must be woven into the rhythm, the targets, and the outputs of daily work.

5.) Measure often and give feedback

A McKinsey study once stated, “We frequently find that companies pay lip service to the importance of developing leadership skills but have no evidence to quantify the value of their investment.”

How do we know we’re actually growing our leaders?

Go back regularly to the original benchmarks and the standard you set for growth. Are you meeting goals, falling short, or exceeding? Where? Why? Be specific and personal. This is basic One Minute Manager stuff of, “When someone does something well or poorly, don’t wait to tell them. Give immediate praise or rebukes.” Look them in the eye, put your hand on the shoulder, and speak what you’re thinking.

Also, know your leaders and your culture well enough to appropriately use rewards. What financial incentives are in place? What promotions can you give to increase responsibility? Tie in to their intrinsic motivators to reward progress—as long as it’s objective progress.

Building leaders is something every organization must embrace. Any shortcuts or oversight will come at a cost. Done well, though, you win, your people win, your customers win, and even the markets win.

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