Closing the Leadership Readiness Gap

Managers represent a large pool of leadership potential, but they must be prepared to make a huge transition.

By Lainie Heneghan Sep 23, 2015
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HR Magazine October 2015As organizations take stock of their talent pipelines after years of economic recession, many are recognizing significant weaknesses in their succession planning and leadership ranks.

On the one hand, the business world has continued to advance and become more complex, often presenting unpredictable challenges that demand strong leaders. On the other, companies have been in “survival mode” and thus not necessarily focused on the supply side of senior leadership.

And while executive leaders see bright managers who are capable of growth, they often dismiss these employees too easily as “not ready.” But, ready or not, managers represent untapped talent in the leadership pipeline.

The consequence of failing to cultivate existing talent? When the time comes to fill the shoes of senior executives, there is a “readiness gap” between the company’s senior executive leaders and managers the next level down who would be in line to join their ranks. It is a challenge that faces CEOs and HR leaders alike.

Even when managers do get promoted, they often struggle with the transition, mistakenly thinking that what got them this far will carry the day in their new position. Not so. Indeed, the move from management to senior executive is a much more dramatic transition than any other promotion a person is likely to earn—and thus requires more preparation. So how does a hands-on manager who has been comfortably directing people suddenly learn to inspire and empower? Below is some advice for those looking to make this transformation.

Engage in self-questioning to adopt a new level of insight. Being considered for a senior executive role is an opportunity to ask oneself fundamental questions. What is important to me? What will this role require? Is it what I really want? If the answer is yes, consider what will get in the way of success.

This is also the time to re-evaluate one’s assumptions, habits and attitudes. What worked in the past may or may not serve the leader in her new role. It is only through self-reflection that she will get beyond her default approach to solving problems. When leaders confront the limits imposed by their strengths and weaknesses, they can create capabilities to reach beyond both.

Stand for a future possibility. Creativity begins with a person’s willingness to reinvent himself. A “possible future” is often referred to as a vision. But what is more important than articulating a vision is that the leader stands behind it, explains what it will mean and operates in a manner consistent with everything it entails.

Develop conversational mastery. A leader fundamentally gets his or her job done by communicating. For the most part, leadership is almost entirely conducted through speaking and listening. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but this is often a blind spot for people. It’s critical that you clarify the outcome you want from each conversation. Deep and attentive listening is also key.

Deliver bold outcomes. Committing to delivering key, bold objectives—those that exceed existing expectations—can be a highly effective path to delivering new levels of results. It involves coming up against limits and facilitating innovation. It also serves to establish a culture and practice of ownership. Rather than being accountable only for processes or tasks, leaders make clear their expectations to deliver measurable results.

Closing the readiness gap starts with committing to the challenge of leadership itself, as well as to being successful. The steps of this process are based on authentic choices that could arguably put organizations at risk of failure. Yet those same decisions are what may lead to great success and new possibilities.

The organizations that take on this challenge will be rewarded with well-qualified cadres of skilled managers who have evolved into creative, high-performing leaders to take them into the future.

Lainie Heneghan is managing director and partner of JMW Consultants.

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