Employers Struggling to Develop Senior Leaders

By Bill Leonard April 6, 2015

With nearly 4 million Baby Boomers set to retire in 2015, businesses across the globe are grappling with an expanding talent gap within their senior management ranks. A survey sponsored by talent management software company Saba and management advisory group WorkplaceTrends.com found that nearly a third of HR executives reported that their organizations are struggling to fill senior leadership positions. Approximately 60 percent of the HR leaders participating in the survey said succession planning has become a top organizational development challenge.

“What’s concerning here is that, quite literally, the future leadership at some critical global organizations is at risk,” said Emily He, chief marketing officer at Saba. “There’s more at play here than just the retirement of Baby Boomers. The fundamental approaches that businesses must take to find, develop and inspire leaders must change.”

The Global Workforce Leadership Survey report was released March 31, 2015, and included responses from 1,000 HR professionals and 1,000 employees from eight countries. The survey was conducted in February and March 2015.

Only 11 percent of the employees responding to the survey listed a senior-level (or C-suite) job among their career goals. The survey results aligned with other recent studies that have found a growing number of workers have little interest in taking on senior management roles. In the fall of 2014, researchers for the Korn Ferry Institute posed the question “Do you want to be CEO?” to a group of top-level executives. The answers it received were surprising: Among the nearly 550 executives polled, approximately one-third (31 percent) either didn’t want the job or were ambivalent about becoming their organization’s top executive.

“The responses were definitely an eye-opener for us,” said Jane Stevenson, vice president, board and CEO services, at Korn Ferry, one of the world’s largest executive search firms. “It definitely indicates a trend away from executives sticking to what we think of as traditional career paths.”

The fact that employees are not interested in taking on senior leadership roles is creating a conundrum for employers that desperately need to find ways to attract and develop these reluctant leaders. Some employers have met with success by redefining leadership roles and appealing directly to candidates’ personal interests and aptitudes.

“Individuals are embracing leadership by virtue of their actions and the impact of their decisions. Job and life experiences now trump job titles,” Saba’s He said. “Therefore, companies need to redefine what they mean by leadership beyond just job descriptions.”

The new approaches to defining and developing leadership are changing the way businesses evaluate employee performance and provide feedback. The Saba/WorkplaceTrends survey and other studies have revealed that employees crave personalized career direction and advice and want current and constant feedback rather than a yearly performance evaluation.

But employers are not leveraging the technology and information available to gain insights into employee performance and provide constructive feedback. According to the survey results, less than one-quarter of businesses worldwide are using advanced technology to gain insights into their people’s performance and the effectiveness of their organization’s talent development efforts. Only 23 percent of the survey respondents are using “big data” to measure the impact of leadership development, while 21 percent reported that they use data analytics to predict and measure training and development outcomes.

“The bottom line is that companies need to rethink their talent management and employee engagement strategies,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends.com. “Personalized employee career development programs, accessible tools and tracking systems, and a focus on redefining and re-engaging leadership, at all levels, will help deliver on the innovation and growth that businesses require.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


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