Leadership Development Is Not Just for High-Potentials

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 18, 2017
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NEW ORLEANS--For Jaime Ray, director of HR for Gratiot Community Mental Health, the workshop "Creating a Leadership Development Program" couldn't have come at a better time. Her publicly funded agency in Alma, Mich.—a rural area about 100 miles northwest of Detroit—removed most of its executive leadership team 18 months earlier.

"We have replaced four out of six executive team members in the last year," including the CEO, chief financial officer, HR director and clinical director, "and recruited brand new leadership," Ray said. She joined the agency in October 2015.

A cultural shift has to be at the top of the list of changes to the agency that employs 120 people, she said. To find out how to make that shift, she attended Joe Urbanski's workshop at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Business Leadership].

Urbanski is chief operating officer and organizational culture strategist at Total Solutions Group, a strategic consulting, training and coaching firm in Philadelphia. He emphasized that leadership is about purpose, not position, and the problem of limiting development to only high-potential participants.

Leadership development is a system that builds an experience, not a "program" that someone goes through a single time, Urbanski told session attendees.

"[Leadership development is] like taking a shower. If you only do it once, you'll stink," he said, prompting laughter.

"You need a culture built around leadership development," and that starts with a vision that considers the following questions:

  • What does your business, culture and experience need to look, sound and feel like?
  • What do you want your people thinking, feeling and doing differently?
  • What is the vision, not the content, of that leadership?

Dispelling the advice that is often given for starting leadership development initiatives, Urbanski told attendees:

  • Don't start with a readiness audit. "You just do it. There is never a best time."
  • Don't use industry data to set standards. "There's no company like yours. You're creating best practices. This needs to start with you."
  • Don't use assessment models. "Why do we have to assess everything? Sometimes you just have to give it a shot and see what happens. It doesn't have to be perfect the first time," and don't give up after the initial effort.
  • Don't limit development to observable behaviors. "Are all of the behaviors you want in your organization observable? No."
  • Don't concentrate on choosing the best training content. "Focus on who you're working with … and then you'll figure out what [content] you need."
  • Don't create a long-term plan. "It doesn't have to last forever," he said, noting that four years is an optimal time.
  • Don't identify high-potential participants for leadership development. While not everyone should be promoted, he said, how do you know if employees have potential if you don't offer a chance at developing them?

The concept of inclusive leadership development resonated with Ray.

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Her agency is a small organization where employees have not had a lot of opportunity for growth—even those on the front line have master's and doctorate's degrees, she said. There are 41,665 people in Gratiot County, according to 2014 population figures, and its isolated location where the closest shopping mall is a 90-minute drive adds to employers' recruitment and retention challenges.

Before the leadership change at the agency, succession planning had been very narrowly targeted to certain people, according to Ray. But she thinks development that is more inclusive can serve as a valuable recruiting and retention tool, especially because Alma is surrounded by colleges—Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Northwood University and Alma College, the local liberal arts school.

"We have a lot of new graduates from the Michigan workforce, and their needs and wants [from an employer] are so different" from previous generations, Ray said. "It's not compensation- and benefits-based. It's development [and] a healthy work/life balance, so having a solid leadership development experience really caters to that group."

When she returns to Alma, she said, she will be armed with ideas on how to build leadership development from the ground up over the next four years.

"We have a good framework with our executive team," she said, but now is the time to "bridge the us versus them [mentality] that exists right now" inside the organization between leadership and employees.


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