One of the most pervasive, and certainly most pernicious, organizational issues I encounter involves the failure of senior leaders to recognize their own need for on-going development. There is a sense, in such cases, that these leaders believe they somehow sprung ready-formed, like Athene from the forehead of Zeus, in full possession of the knowledge and the acumen necessary for their success. That no further effort is required, and the end of the road has been reached. That the title itself provides immunity to further development need. Less than god-like, in every case I have found these individuals more in need of development than most. The very resistance to development is in fact the signal of real need.
While it’s fair to assume that promotion suggests an individual has productively grown and evolved in their role, this development shouldn’t—and frankly can’t—stop when the individual reaches a senior leadership role. In fact, the job becomes more difficult and the stakes become even higher around the successful performance of their role. One of the most critical shifts a senior leader must make is to leave “silo thinking” behind and become a true member of the business team, capable of thinking laterally, across the business, to appreciate the needs of the business as a whole and not simply remain focused on their own individual sphere of command within the organization. There is a tremendous developmental effort required to make this transition, as this is a truly novel step in a leader’s evolution. More than ever, a commitment to development is key to navigating this change and becoming a fully functional leader in the business.
But beyond personal development, senior leadership is critical in shaping the broader conversation around employee development. What value does the organization place on people development? What is the linkage between the strategy of the organization and the people necessary for the execution of that strategy? When senior leadership determines they are uniquely excluded from development, or, worse yet, they fail to address developmental needs all together, they place the business at risk and abdicate one of their most significant obligations.
Firstly, if senior leadership doesn’t believe development is a critical part of their own progress as leaders and custodians of the business, why should any other employee feel dissimilarly? If they resign responsibility to HR to lead and manage people development, without including themselves in those efforts, you can rest assured developmental goals will be marginally accomplished at best. Failure to make people development a key business strategy is nothing short of failing to serve the needs of the business. It suggests a profound misunderstanding of how work actually gets done. Senior support of, and participation in, leadership development sends a critical message to the organization that acknowledges the role employees play in the success of the business, and, by turn, that development plays in the success of the employee.
Beyond cheerleading developmental initiatives, however, actually participating in leadership training is a necessary part of personal development—a process that, like this winter season, never ends. I would go so far as to suggest that the best leaders have an intellectual curiosity, a drive toward improvement, that is part of what makes them effective leaders. The corollary here is that an absence of interest in development, whether the outcome of old-fashioned hubris or reflective of a dangerous myopia, should send up signals akin to smoke pouring out of the kitchen. The building is on fire and time is of the essence. If you miss this blatant a signal, what else are you missing in your business?
Putting the very real problem of ego aside for a moment, more often than not when senior leaders fail to engage with development, the cause is due to a combination of functional workload and an outmoded belief that leadership is little more than a collage of soft skills with relatively no concrete applicability. The thought process goes something like this: “I have a lot of work I need to get done and spending time away from my job learning skills that won’t help me finish my work is not going to help”. Sound familiar? The expression of that sentiment is precisely the moment that kitchen fire flares up and the whole house becomes at risk.
Firstly, leading and developing people is your job. You come to define irony itself when you carry a leadership title, sit on the leadership team, make leadership decisions, and yet refuse to actually practice leading the people you’re responsible for. Secondly, by developing your leadership skills, you become more proficient in the development of your employees. Ultimately, your employees are responsible for executing the needs of the business and driving business success. An investment in your employees is the most significant investment in your business that you can make. And lastly, there is no challenge as difficult—and ultimately rewarding—as the development of your people. By comparison, negotiating deals, marketing your brand, handling client issues, and building strategy are remarkably straightforward. And when people development is the focus, you create the capacity for those same employees to help you with all of these other facets of your business and stay the course long after you’ve left. That is a true legacy; and that is true leadership success.
Leadership development is not “for everyone else”; it’s for every leader in the organization, from CEO downward. Now, more than ever, it is critical for every leader to invest in their development and take seriously the first and most critical role that they play as a leader: that leading and developing people is the job. Investment in performing this role as successfully as you are able. The results to your business will follow in relation to the size and the seriousness of that investment. Invest wisely.