Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Developing the Next Generation of Leaders (Part 3)

You can select the right people and enroll them in a formal program, but you'll likely struggle to develop leaders if you don't address the influence of corporate culture. This is the third, and perhaps most crucial, aspect of developing new leaders in your firm. See the two previous posts for the rest of the story.

#3. Creating a Supportive Culture

Corporate culture is the sum of behaviors, habits, and rules that influence how things get done within the firm. Culture affects any long-term efforts to get something done, and that includes developing new leaders. But it's especially relevant to this issue because how leadership works in your firm is strongly influenced by your culture.

Leaders are more effective when they know how to leverage culture to their advantage. Yet there are times when culture stands in the way of needed change. Then a leader must really prove his or her worth by leading the difficult process of changing the culture.

A leadership culture. Leadership development occurs most readily in what I call a leadership culture. This kind of culture is characterized by the following:

Leadership is encouraged at all levels of the organization. At the most basic level, leadership can be defined as the ability to persuade others to follow. In this context, anyone in your firm can assume a leadership role, at least temporarily. The best firms promote an environment where personal initiative is encouraged and supported, including engaging coworkers in those initiatives where appropriate. Of course, these efforts must be consistent with corporate objectives and values. But enlightened firms avoid creating unnecessary constraints on personal initiative.

Continuous improvement is a priority. Firms committed to continuous improvement need ample leadership bandwidth across the organization to initiate and guide improvement efforts. Interestingly, when firms take on the challenge of continuous improvement, more leaders seem to arise. It makes sense if you think about it. You don't need more leaders to keep doing things the same way, so few new leaders emerge. But when the need (and the potential rewards) exist, people tend to step up to the leadership challenge.

There is adequate coaching and mentoring. In a leadership culture, leaders invest their time in others. And that provides fertile ground for cultivating new leadership. Most firm cultures I've worked in are only marginally sustainable. That's because leaders don't spend adequate time helping others grow and develop. Forced mentoring programs generally don't work. The dedication to coaching and mentoring must come from willing leaders.

Barriers to a leadership culture. Unfortunately, there several obstacles to creating a leadership culture in the typical A/E firm. If you desire to have such a culture in your firm, here are some things you may need to overcome:

Lack of role models.
It's hard for the next generation to learn about effective leadership if they can't watch effective leaders at work.

Limited upward mobility.
A common complaint I hear among junior staff (and even more senior staff) is the lack of adequate opportunities to advance and grow professionally. this may be due to a number of causes including slow firm growth, unclear career paths, and tightly-held ownership (where there are limited leadership roles for non-owners).

Failure to appropriately delegate. This problem also limits upward mobility. Increasing responsibility and complexity in work assignments is key to developing leadership ability. Unfortunately, many project managers and other managers are not so good at delegation.

Preferential treatment. This occurs when people are promoted into leadership roles for reasons other than their leadership ability. This is all too common, and it stifles leadership development among those who are passed over despite having better skills and potential.

Poorly defined values and standards. These provide the bedrock for building a leadership culture, those few immutable principles that anchor all decisions and corporate activity. Without them, a collective definition of leadership becomes much harder. And fewer people rise up to fill the ill-defined role of leader.

Lack of accountability. Of course, a critical responsibility of leaders is to hold people accountable to do those things that really matter. Where there is little accountability, there is an obvious leadership void. That makes it more difficult to develop the next generation of leaders.

Resistance to change. If you're trying to prepare new leaders, but encumber their efforts with a general resistance to change, you'll not get far in their development. This unfortunately happens quite often. Another way to stifle change is to create too many inflexible rules or unnecessary bureaucracy. Before launching a formal leadership development program, I recommend conducting an honest assessment of your firm's "change readiness." The two go hand in hand.

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