The Employee Engagement Network

Are the leaders in your organization teaching the next generation of leaders?

Here is an excerpt from article written by Michael Watkins for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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Once a year, I chair a future enterprise leader development program at a Fortune 500 firm. It includes elements on strategy, innovation, leadership, decision-making, corporate diplomacy, and executive presence. The most powerful element is a one-week module on enterprise perspective, the core of which is presentations by virtually all of company’s senior executive team. It’s all about leaders teaching leaders.

[Note: At GE, C-level executives -- including the CEO -- spend at least 20% of their time developing the company's next generation of leaders.]

The program highlights the critical role that senior leaders play, in the best companies, in teaching the next generation. It’s become an acid test for me of company greatness: if your senior leadership isn’t investing a significant amount of their own time in educating high-potentials, that doesn’t bode well for your business.

The single most impressive aspect of the presentations I listened to was the common core of values and priorities shared by the team. While they run far-flung parts of the business, there was tremendous coherence in what they said about what’s really important. The driving theme was that great performance is a direct consequence of having great people and a great culture. This was certainly the case during the recession, when the company moved nimbly and effectively. Needed restructuring was done, but in the most humane way possible. And while pay cuts were
necessary, the top team took the biggest reductions on a percentage basis. This attention to preserving the culture left the company well positioned to accelerate out the other side.

Beyond the impressive commonality of purpose and values, the executives individually articulated aspects of their shared leadership philosophy that deserve to be highlighted. Here are some excerpts:

“There may be many opinions, but only one set of facts.” This reflects the reality that fact-based management (and continuous improvement) is core to how the company does business. If you get mired down in divergent opinions, seek the truth.

“You have two ears and just one mouth for a reason.” Executives in this business are serious about listening and assessing before they act. Even at the most senior levels, executives are very careful not to become deaf to beliefs that run counter to their own, and are genuinely committed to life-long learning.

“I don’t let people delegate upward.” The executive who said this was careful to note that his people could of course come to him for advice, but he never let them offload problems that were within their
capabilities to solve.

“I manage between the white lines.” By this, the executive meant that he gave his people the scope to do things their way, so long the results were not likely to drive the business off the road. It reflects an understanding of the need to balance judicious risk management with empowerment and innovation.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen if the worst thing happened?” Finally, this quote reflects the attention that the team gives to anticipating potential “surprises” and developing contingency plans.
While real surprises happen, this business is unlikely to get sideswiped by a surprise. I plan to pick up some of these themes and develop them in more detail in future posts.

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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

Michael Watkins
is Chairman of Genesis Advisers. He is the author of many books, including The First 90 Days and Your Next Move.

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