The Simple Path to Leadership Bench Strength

We all know about helicopter parents – those nuts who start off doing their kids homework and end up filling out their job applications – but what about helicopter managers?  I don’t mean micro managers who follow their team members around breathing down their necks.  I mean the supervisors who fail to realize that it’s their job to develop the leadership skills of their staff; who hold onto every task that requires collaboration or decision making for themselves rather than allowing their team members to learn these skills!

When a bunch of executives were surveyed recently, ¾ of them said that developing leaders within their organization would be their top business priority over the next 2-3 years.  But great leaders don’t just spring out of their cubicles – management is a skill that has to be learned over time.  In order to have a deep bench of future leaders, organizations need to stop doing two thing:

  1. Waiting Too Long – You don’t learn to play football by starting in the Superbowl.  The stakes are simply too high.  So much of being an effective manager stems from merging your own personality and values with the job of being a leader, and that takes time and practice.  Too many companies hold off on allowing great individuals to take on management and leadership roles on a small scale, and then complain that they don’t have enough mature leaders who are ready to take on the high level executive positions.
  2. Focusing on Too Few People – It’s the old saying – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  If upper management focuses all of their development resources on a small percentage of top performers, they risk losing that investment if the employees choose to take their skills elsewhere, or worse be held hostage to keeping them happy at all costs.  Spreading those training resources across a broader range of individuals not only mitigates the potential loss of those investments but may uncover talented leaders that might have otherwise been missed.

Integrating management and leadership development at every level of the organization is not as hard as it seems.  Here’s a simple example that anyone can implement.  If you ever played a team sport in high school or college, you are probably familiar with an exercise called an Indian Run.  This workout involves the whole team jogging in a line.  The last person in the line sprints to the front position and then resumes jogging.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Take this idea and apply it to delegating the management of a project for your team to one of its members.  Each month one person has to manage an initiative on their own.  From defining a project plan, identifying resources, setting goals, and giving status updates, they own it.  The next month someone else takes a leadership sprint.

This exercise has several great benefits.  First (and most obvious), it gives you the opportunity to observe each member of your team’s management skills and see their strengths and weaknesses.  Second, it’s a great way to foster interdependence among your team members.  If Bob needs someone to help him out with a project this month, he will be much more willing to collaborate with Susan when she comes to him next month.  Third, as your team builds it’s leadership skills, you are effectively developing your own executive skills by learning to manage the managers.

That was the easy part of the conversation – now we get to the tough question.  Are you secure enough to implement this program?  Many people who nodded and said “great idea” through the last two paragraphs will balk at actually putting such a program in place.  Why?  Because they are afraid that by training their team members to be better managers and leaders, they will be working themselves out of a job.  The truth is that your best people will grow with or without you.  So think carefully next time you have a small project to manage.  Will you let your “kids” grow up or will you keep insisting that they are not ready yet?

Are your leadership skills holding you back?  Contact me and find out what a little coaching can do for your career!

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