I Might Lead

Most grade school kids dream of jobs that entail great mental or physical ability. The typical jobs most cited by elementary school children include firefighter, police officer, ballerina, doctor, sports star, astronaut, rock star, and business person.  When children are asked about who are some business people they would like to be, they select household names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  When kids are asked why, the primary reasons include leading their own company, creating innovative products, and making an impact on society.

Obviously, not every child wants to be leader.  However, among those desiring a business vocation, there is a strong interest in being more than a rank and file employee.  However, somewhere between grade school and employment that level of interest diminishes.  How do we go from dreaming of being Bill Gates to just hoping to get through the day?  Obviously, capability or aptitude impacts who succeeds at becoming a leader and who does not.  Potentially, there are three other major forces that can impact this transformation from hoping to be a leader and becoming one as we mature:

  • Opportunity to Gain Experience
  • Commitment of Organizations
  • Competing Alternatives

Opportunity to Gain Experience

There are numerous opportunities to practice leadership in a person’s youth.  Between student government, organizing games, or being the captain of a sports team, there a number of activities that impart leadership experience.  However, only a few go on to build on those skills and utilize them during high school and beyond.  We have all known those rare adolescents that are student body president, a leader in other school organizations, and a team captain who progress to being a leader in college and later their respective career.  The more typical path is that a person will have limited experience in their youth and only begin to assume a leadership role more out of necessity as they mature.  After gaining higher education, job progression creates more opportunities to hold more responsible positions.  How many times have you seen an accomplished employee be promoted to a leadership position simply because they are the best performer at their current job?   Typically, those individuals are not overly successful since they lack the experience necessary and shy away from future opportunities.

Commitment of Organizations

Most organizations talk about leadership development, but fail to invest enough financial and non-financial resources in creating future leaders, especially during times of economic downturns.  On average, organizations spend less than 30 percent of their training budget on leadership development overall.  The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) conducted a leadership education survey at their 2011 conference with 85 attendees.  The results found that 42% of attendees plan to increase their budgets while 39% planned to keep it same from 2010 to 2011 (http://www1.astd.org/Blog/post/4225-of-Leadership-Development-Professionals-Saw-Budget-Increases-in-2011.aspx).  The Wall Street Journal ran an article summarizing Bersin and Associates, LLC survey that indicated that employers cut spending on training by 11% in both 2009 and 2008, but a slight upturn has occurred in 2010 and 2011 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703314904575399260976490670.html) Both support the idea that organizations are starting to realize that the downturn will end and more leadership resources are needed for the future.  Yet, this “yo-yo” approach to providing necessary training creates gaps in different cohorts of future leaders.  Outside of financial resources, time utilization for mentoring and coaching makes a big difference in identifying, training, and placing leaders.  In environments of uncertainty, most current leaders commit to making the best of the areas that they are directly responsible for and not looking to increase responsibilities.  Nevertheless, this mindset reduces opportunities for growing new leaders.

Competing Alternatives

There is more competition from alternative responsibilities as we mature.  Marriage, children, community involvement, and other activities become part of the work-life balance that we attempt to maintain on a regular basis.  Most employees perceive that their leaders do less work than they do, but perceive that taking a leadership position would be more time demanding than their current position.  As mentioned in the last post, the number one reason for a reduced interest in leadership responsibility was a perceived poor cost to benefit trade off.  Although not identified in that research, it might be assumed that work life balance played a key role in each person’s internal calculations.

Clearly, these are not the only reasons that a childhood desire for leadership is not realized.  Capability is one of the most important determinants.  However, experience, organizational resource commitment, and competing alternatives are all things that play into determining the size of the pipeline of new leaders in our organizations.

What can we do to counteract these factors? There are four core actions that we take that will encourage employees to grow as leaders:

  • Place an emphasis on leadership by making it part of the organization’s strategic focus;
  • Hire employees that have leadership capability;
  • Commit the financial and non-financial resources to create leadership growth opportunities; and
  • Monitor our organization’s progress to ensure that you are maximizing the tools and resources available.
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