To speed up in a frenzied world, one must first stop and rethink. But if you are a CEO or business leader seeking fresh insight on how to fundamentally change your organization’s leadership equation, the quest can be exhausting. Two things are true about the current state of guidance on how to grow leaders faster:
- The intense global need for leaders has sparked a proliferation of highly redundant ideas, often repackaging tried-and-true principles and best practices or making incremental enhancements that are pitched to sound revolutionary. CEOs and HR leaders, often in desperation, must read anything and everything to find any pearl of wisdom or insight that might boost their efforts.
- The established guidelines for developing leaders now exist in a far more complex world, and many no longer have the impact they once had. This reinforces the need described in the first point and creates a vicious cycle in which the same ideas continue to be recycled, while the need for leaders further outstrips the ability of organizations to grow them.
Don’t worry—we won’t be promising a silver-bullet solution or warning that you can avoid disaster only by adopting our unique and perfect formula. You don’t need us—not really. Everything you need to accelerate the growth of leadership is already inside your organization. You have the people, the resources, the budget, and, yes, the time to make your leadership grow. But if you’re among the 74 percent of top leaders who say their succession management systems aren’t functioning as intended, or the 85 percent who say they lack the leadership bench necessary to address emerging business challenges then you’ve stalled and could use a jump start or, at least, some fresh directions.
But figuring out your own formula can’t possibly mean that things have to get more crowded with ideas than they are already. With all that has been learned, written, and applied, haven’t we discovered enough of what we need to know about what it takes to grow leaders?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes, we do know a great deal about the tools, technology, content, and methods that influence the speed of growth among leaders, and tremendous progress has been made. But no, tools and technology do not grow leaders. Leaders grow leaders. And even the latest and greatest inventions do not change the prospects for closing the leadership gap. While the talent management industry has poured incalculable resources into the advancement of tools and technology, the muscles of human effort for growing leaders have atrophied. It seems the more we invest in things, the less adept we are at investing in each other.
In our work throughout the world, we have asked executives countless times, “What does it feel like when you’re learning at high speed?” Their responses are universally consistent: There is fear and excitement, worry and anticipation, terror and thrill, anxiety and experimentation, risk and possibility—all of which generates the energy for accelerated learning. But as you’re probably all too aware, most leadership-development programs fail to spark this brand of energy—or much energy at all. Participants may describe them as educational and interesting or even business relevant or strategically important. But these descriptors are a far cry from the fear, excitement, terror, and thrill that leaders associate with their moments of high-speed learning. Everything you need to accelerate the growth of leadership is already inside your organization.
Fear and excitement happen with risk, and that energy turns into growth when you take the right risks, at the right times. This means moving with alacrity and getting quickly to the heart of what really matters when building the skills and capabilities of your people. Speeding up growth will not happen simply by making learning activities happen more quickly. It will occur when you thoughtfully and systematically take risks that ignite energy in your leaders—in the form of uncertainty and enthusiasm. In our experience the leadership-acceleration efforts that fall short of their objectives are bound by a common description: They are aggressive in the pursuit of structure and application of tools, but anemic in the pursuit of energy.
If your acceleration efforts are falling short, you will not fix the problem with more process, tools, technology, or teams of smart consultants. The most fundamental barrier to growing leaders quickly is a lack of energy, and that energy can be generated by boldness—your boldness.
Make no mistake: You definitely will need some tools and processes to make the most of your efforts. But if you want more leaders ready now and you want them faster, you must use your acceleration toolbox far more shrewdly, and with a willingness to take on much more risk. As a management team, you must create and embrace the fear, excitement, anxiety, and experimentation that individual leaders experience in their moments of rapid learning. You must be willing to feel uncomfortable and remain open to uncertain outcomes as individuals and as a company. Only then will the leadership gap begin to close.