The Value of Teaching Future Leaders to Lead

Most organizations don't have a good plan for grooming those next in line for the C-suite. Getting it right requires direct attention, and more than just a two-day offsite.

Leading an organization is time-consuming, so it’s understandable that many leaders don’t spend much time thinking about who’ll run the show after they leave.

Understandable, but regrettable. According to a 2013 study from the Bridgespan Group, about two-thirds of nonprofit leaders disagree with the statement, “our organization is highly effective in developing a strong internal and external pipeline of future leaders.” Much of this simply has to do with institutional drift, I suspect—a sense that CEO transitions need to happen at some point, but not just yet.

“Top-level training organizations move beyond abstract learning to understand how to align what they’re doing with key business objectives.”

But there’s another challenge connected to helping colleagues become better leaders: What’s the best way to do it? Last year, when I spoke with Bridgespan’s Preeta Nayak about the study, she said she sensed that the ground was shifting away from formal education and more direct coaching and collaboration. And that when training did happen, it needed to be mindfully integrated into day-to-day work. “Formal training will be much more powerful to the extent that it’s linked to something you do on the job and your manager knows that you’ve learned these skills and that you’re trying to use them,” she said.

Some recent commentaries suggest that this trend is solidifying. Last week, Britain’s HR magazine reported on leadership training that’s moving away from formal MBA classroom-style education and into more collaborative experiences where people on the leadership ladder apply their skills. The piece reports that at Capital One, leadership training is supplemented with experiences inside and outside the company. “The idea is that leaders become exceptional by bouncing their ideas around a diverse audience, both within the organization and also externally,” says Karen Bowes, the company’s VP of international HR. “We do have an extensive leadership development program based in the classroom but we also have a program that sends our top leaders outside the organization to network and hear examples of great behavior in other organizations.”

In a recent interview with Forbes, Harvard Business Publishing’s Ray Carvey made a similar point—all the outside seminars in the world won’t matter unless the participants are encouraged to make them applicable back at the office. “Top-level training organizations move beyond abstract learning to understand how to align what they’re doing with key business objectives,” he says. “Our clients who do this well speak in business terms, not in training terms.”

Carvey also speaks to the rise of more creative tools using interactive and gamified learning. But none of that will happen, he points out, if top leadership doesn’t recognize the importance of that training first place, and actively sanctions it. That creates another challenge for an association leader—he or she is now in the position of identifying the talent who have the capability to lead, which may alienate the people who aren’t. But the high turnover and expensive hiring searches that come with kicking the can on leadership training, Nayak points out, can be just as much of a frustration for an organization.

The first step toward a solution, she says, is to make sure that the people who have the promise to lead the organization are explicitly given their first chances to. “What’s lacking is systematic thinking about what needs we’re going to have for our future leaders,” Nayak says. “And for the folks we see growing into those roles, are we making sure they’re getting the right stretch opportunities?”

What programs do you have in place to train leaders within your organization, and how did you get it off the ground? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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