The Changing Nature of Leadership Development

In the 1960s and 70s the development of executive leadership was a fairly straight-forward process that took place in a relatively stable and less complex environment than we have today.

  • Both the company and its employees believed that the two would be together for the “career” of the employee
  • The pace of change in business was considerably slower and the overall market dynamic relatively stable and unchanging. Thus, established skill sets for one generation of leaders was, for the most part, applicable for the next
  • Managers had long-term, line-of-sight relationships for those who worked for them
  • Organizations were generally smaller and workforces were concentrated in central locations simplifying communication, coordination, and work processes. Organizational culture while important was relatively easy to define and maintain because of the size of the enterprise and the homogenous nature of the workforce
  • Large numbers of “middle management” ensured narrow spans of control and thus the effort to manage and develop staff demanded less time and effort

Today we live in a much different world. New global and cultural realities have rendered traditional approaches to leadership development nearly obsolete. Today’s world of high velocity, discontinuous change demands greater numbers of skilled leaders but challenges the customary ways of developing leadership talent.

Up until the mid 1980s organizations were tall and thin with relatively narrow spans of management, in contrast to today. Increasing competitive intensities forced organizations to become leaner, faster, and more efficient. Growing numbers of “knowledge workers”, enhanced rapidly flowing communication, evolving digital and wireless technologies, and the increasing propensity toward team-based structures all have combined to both widen and diversify the span of control for managers in today’s organizations.

  • Part-time workers and contract labor who are blended into the permanent workforce make it difficult to see who we should be developing – Courtesy tends to treat guests and family members alike
  • Leadership development is a time-consuming task. From a time perspective, today’s managers are spread so thin that you can almost see light through them. Although highly important, the development of future leadership most often does not achieve the level of immediate urgency that occupies our highly compressed time frames
  • The focus on quarter-to-quarter results and the penalties for “not hitting the number” force a short-term mindset on the decisions and priorities of most executives. This issue, coupled with lack of margin and time, challenge the idea of leadership and talent development. Leadership development not only takes a lot of time, but it also takes a long time
  • Flat organizations with wide spans of control, team-based structures staffed with cross-functional teams, matrix structures demanding that people report to multiple managers, telecommuting, and distributed work teams spread over vast and often global geographic areas make it difficult to know who works for whom on what task. Matrix structures have blurred the “line of sight” between the worker and manager responsible for their development
  • 21st Century communication technology and customs often mean that many manager-subordinate teams seldom meet face-to-face on a regular basis. Performance appraisal has become an administrative nightmare and leadership development is relegated to the training classroom, if it is done at all
  • Far-flung global companies wrestle with the issue of maintaining a healthy, productive organizational culture with amazingly diverse global workforces coming from very different social cultures and worldviews
  • The nature of the relationship between the worker, the workplace, and the work has changed dramatically. The social contract between employers and employees has been severed and the idea of a single-company career was left behind in the previous century. Today’s workforce views themselves as “Me, Inc.” and sees work as a series of project relationships rather than career relationships
  • Many of today’s organizations tend to “hire” leadership rather than develop it. They are paying for skill and expect the worker to arrive “developed” with little thought as to where that development might have taken place

The core principles of leadership development have changed very little between the two business eras described above, but the practical application of those principles must change dramatically. To add fuel to the fire, the very things that make leadership development so challenging are, at the same time, amplifying the need for leadership at every level of every organization. Companies around the world must ask and answer two critical questions:

  1. What kind of leadership do we need in such an environment?
  2. How do we develop leaders in this type of environment?

Triaxia Partners assists client organizations in the design and implementation of systems and processes that address these critical questions. We help clients tailor talent development strategies that are aligned with their corporate culture, capabilities, and strategic ambitions as well as reflect the realities of the world in which we must do business.