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How Authentic Is Your Leadership Development?

CLOs may already know who they want to pull into leadership development programs, but it pays to include high potentials at lower levels to add cultural and business performance value.

February 27, 2013
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Coaching, Mentoring, Learning Delivery, Leadership Development

For some time, the efficacy and utility of authentic leadership, emotional intelligence and other similar skill sets in the workplace have been considered secondary, soft skill conversations. However, contemporary leaders who openly embrace conscious and authentic leadership styles such as Kevin Wilde, chief learning officer at General Mills, Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, are re-envisioning effective principles developed by forerunners such as Bill George, formerly of Medtronic, and Daniel Goleman, father of the emotional intelligence theory.

For organizations looking to promote authenticity in their leadership ranks, it is important to create a strategy that incorporates clear objectives and outcomes at each phase of leadership development: include ongoing assessments; adopt flexible progression pathing — the road to the C-suite often consists of a series of lateral, upward movements; align leadership strengths and skills with organizational needs and strategies; and tie it all into strategic HR planning. With this integrated foundation, all leaders, whether a technical lead, a manager or a vice president, have a clear development roadmap that engenders loyalty and supports individual and organizational success.

Without a clear and integrated strategy, these same leaders may flounder and prematurely leave an organization. Or, they may stay but lack the necessary experience and skill to make critical leadership decisions. Either way results in a leadership gap that reduces employee engagement and retention, increases on-boarding costs, promotes loss of institutional knowledge and diminishes the quality of products or services, all of which limit an employee’s ability, and correspondingly an organization’s opportunity, to generate maximized and sustained revenue and growth.

Authentic Development Is Everyone’s Business
In a 2009 white paper, “Developing a Leadership Strategy: A Critical Ingredient for Organizational Success,” William Pasmore of the Center for Creative Leadership said that developing leadership strategy is an iterative process that is a creative mix of logic and art. The days of passively awaiting sequential directives from executive leadership are gone. In today’s dynamic workplace, each person is responsible for demonstrating leadership within the context of his or her environment, regardless of title or role.

Pasmore said growth requires organizations to accelerate talent development for key roles. Leaders who participate in an authentic organizational development program possess direct or influencing authority, can effect healthy organizational change and possess a balanced mix of leadership traits such as self- and situational awareness, self-management, courage, integrity, drive and compassion.

Developing these traits is an experiential process that takes place over time through a blend of formal and informal learning, hands-on and virtual personal leadership and organizational leadership development training, cross-departmental collaborations, high-visibility stretch projects, coaching and self-reflection. With each experience, organizations cultivate leaders who are self-regulated and possess critical skills that influence individual performance and contribute to organizational viability.

Creating a corporate culture that supports authentic leadership development is a transformational process that pays for itself — literally and figuratively. But it takes time to see a return on investment. To initiate this process, CLOs and other leaders must first agree on a definition of leadership authenticity for their organization, and then clearly and consistently communicate it along with guiding steps on how to adopt it as the new normal.

For example, Weiner, of LinkedIn, is well known for using the term “next play” to keep leaders at all levels motivated and focused on project pipelines and organizational objectives. The term is an extension of his authentic leadership style that became part of LinkedIn’s new normal. In addition to consistent and clear communication, there has to be collective buy-in and commitment across all levels of the organization. To help, Kevin S. Groves, associate professor of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine University, wrote a study, “Integrating Leadership Development and Succession Planning Best Practices,” identifying six key components that can facilitate authentic leadership development:
• Identification and codification of leadership talent.
• Assignment of action-oriented developmental activities.
• Creation of leadership development opportunities through teaching.
• Reinforcement of an organizational culture of leadership development.
• Persuasive mentoring and coaching relationships.
• Enhancement of high potentials’ visibility.

Talent ID Through Active and Passive Learning
Although there are many ways to identify and codify leadership talent, two primary themes emerged from Groves’ study: the need for executives to adopt a long-term approach to talent identification, and the importance of promoting development instead of a replacement approach to succession planning and other talent management initiatives. This includes “resisting the temptation to designate an heir-apparent for key executive [or other] positions.”

To be authentic and credible, an organization should have multiple potential successors for a range of positions. It’s also important to fully engage managers at various levels during the succession planning process. Senior-level managers, for example, can play an active role in communicating, coaching, monitoring and assigning stretch projects to direct reports. Individual contributors may become more engaged when they can contribute to the implementation and iteration of an authentic leadership development program.

The aforementioned themes can serve as a useful guideline to ensure flexible, sustainable and relevant talent identification and codification processes regardless of the ultimate methodology chosen for their execution, be it surveys, project assignments and analyses, 360-degree evaluations, annual reviews or other assessments.

For example, leaders may assign action-oriented projects to help future leaders expand their capabilities. Karen Gardner, executive director of training and organizational development for technical services company ManTech International Corp., approaches learning in three stages: initial learning for accuracy and quality, practice for fluency and endurance, and application or combination of components in a composite behavior.

“Many courses fail to produce true mastery because they skip or minimize the second stage. Think of show, try and test,” Gardner said. “Skipping the try part prematurely plunges learners into performance, when they can’t perform one or more critical components fluently.”

Using such methodologies, leaders can better identify high performers and assess leadership competencies against organizational goals and objectives. In Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value by Bill George, the author posits that employees must have empowerment and responsibility. Action-oriented projects bestow empowerment while maintaining clear responsibility and accountability as an indicator of leadership potential and positive business results. To further support this hypothesis, the November study, “Transforming Learning Into a Strategic Business Enabler,” conducted by Human Capital Media Advisory Group — the research arm of Chief Learning Officer magazine — and Saba Software Inc., suggests learning and career development play an important role in generating positive business and employee performance (Figure 1).

Teaching and Culture Reinforcement
In addition to action-oriented projects, authentic leadership development strategies also should include teaching opportunities as a developmental tool. Teaching affords employees the opportunity to deepen their areas of expertise in key company divisions and operations. It also gives leaders a more holistic view of organizational challenges and successes, and positions them for leadership roles where they can exercise better decision-making and risk management, support new innovations and ensure economic sustainability.

Gardner said leaders should remember “to tie [development] to accomplishing the mission — i.e., pleasing your customer, executing a program and making a profit. If you can articulate metrics in terms of the bottom line — costs saved, issues prevented, top-line growth, lowering turnover, economies of scale, impact of failure to train — you’ll see the development of a culture of collaboration. If you don’t, your effort may be reduced to a culture of competition for limited resources.”

Ultimately, action learning and teaching opportunities used within organizations create a culture that nurtures authentic leadership development. Cross-organizational allocation of these opportunities sends the message that leadership values internal development and is committed to providing a credible path for employee growth and visibility.

Persuasive Mentoring and Coaching Relationships
Mentoring relationships are well known to enhance the work product, support talent engagement and retention and create promotional opportunities. Although there are challenges to maintaining effective mentoring, these programs provide value to employees and companies alike by establishing a coherent network of professionals who actively intend to maximize and match individual and organizational growth opportunities.

Alternatively, professional coaching can create deeper levels of awareness and transformation at the individual and organizational levels. However, for several reasons, including cost, coaching historically has been reserved for remedial measures at the C-suite level. Coaching also can provide impactful and sustained results with high performers at lower leadership levels.
One cost-effective way to use coaching more broadly is to engage managers as coaches for their teams and areas of influence. Another way is to engage internal coaches within HR or, alternatively, negotiate competitive rates with external coaches to conduct coaching sessions with high-potential employees by leveraging annual professional developmental budgets rather than drawing on incremental financial resources.

Each of these tactics and skills, when applied holistically to the larger organizational construct, can help create a business that integrates authenticity as a core component of organizational culture, maintains a viable leadership pipeline and yields positive business results.

Michelle Maldonado is associate vice president of corporate and strategic relationships and creator of the Authentic Leadership Series for American Public University. She can be reached at

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