Despite substantial and increasing investments in leadership development, most organisations still struggle to have the required leadership benches needed to meet current and future business needs.
The uncertainty around what the future of work looks like and what skills leaders will need to be successful makes it difficult to successfully build a strong leadership bench.
Yes, there are perfectly crafted high potential lists of candidates who could fill a leadership position; however, they are not created with a look to the future or an understanding of what the business will need to deliver its vision: “Today’s leader capabilities and competencies have rarely changed, whilst the operating environment and landscape a leader must navigate has changed drastically. It is no secret that we are in an era of unprecedented change and ambiguity with new emerging technologies, and generational shifts in attitudes.”
Still, there is a missing link between managing leadership bench-strength and where the organisation is going. Only 50% of leading organisations surveyed by CEO-World Magazine in 2023 are confident that their leadership bench will be able to lead the organisation into the future. Therefore, the continuous inquiry from the side of executives and business leaders in any talent conversation is “How Healthy Is Our Organisation’s Leadership Bench-Strength?”
Leadership Pipeline Management Doesn’t Work
Having a strong bench is essentially the way organisations prepare their leadership teams or leadership pipeline. It basically reflects the organisation’s ability to immediately fill a critical leadership position with talented internal candidates in order to maintain business performance and drive success. However, organisations’ continuous attempts and traditional pipeline strategies to manage the leadership benches greatly fail to generate future business leaders capable of managing continuous challengeable business contexts. There are two main reasons for the ineffectiveness of the traditional leadership pipeline management:
Typically, the traditional leadership pipeline approach focuses on preparing and aligning a pool of future leaders to a specific critical role(s), but this approach breaks down in today’s business environment: 13% of leadership positions were eliminated in the past three year, and 31% of leaders are in newly created positions. Leadership roles are changing more frequently, and most organisations – as reported by CEO World Magazine 2023 Survey – expect more than 40% of their leadership roles to be significantly different within five years. Thus, the traditional approach- to manage the leadership pipeline with a direct focus only on a specific leadership role- does not work, and a transformative approach is basically needed to shift toward a leadership portfolio pipeline approach.
While focusing on preparing and developing the future leaders in the light of a specific set of competencies and skills associated with the leadership/critical role is a basic leadership development component, the traditional leadership pipeline approach does not build ‘Experiences’ through which different contexts along with different challenges leaders must work through.
Leadership is more complex today. We can clearly notice that rapidly changing roles present new contextual challenges that have significant impact on the capabilities leaders need to be successful. Business context shape the innate capabilities needed for Leader Success:Leaders need to know how to handle contextual challenges such as ‘succeeding in volatile, ambiguous environments, leading geographically dispersed teams, transforming a high-conflict culture, and delivering rapidly changing products, services, or processes.’ Leader performance improves when a leader’s capabilities and experience are fit to the context and match the particular challenges of a specific role.
That’s why the traditional leadership pipeline strategies greatly fail to develop future leaders capable of working through different challengeable contexts; the focus should be shifted from a role-competencies development to context-experience development.
The Solution: The Leadership Bench-Strength Model- The Three Factors
In order to continuously improve leadership bench strength, organisations must shift its practices from a traditional pipeline management approach to a business context management approach. As part of The FACTORS Series, I have led a global leadership research study through which we collected information about more than 9000 leaders in terms of their performance and development. The study has revealed a recommended Three-Phases Based Model to manage the leadership bench strength.
Phase One: Context Based Planning
In today’s challenging business environment, using context to enhance current approaches will leave organisations better placed to identify and develop targeted, dynamic, agile, and precise leadership strategies.
Context based planning is the effective basis to identify leaders by their ability to thrive in certain business contexts (e.g., operate with high resource constraints, design, and drive business growth & new market entry strategies, and deliver rapidly changing products, services, and processes), and matching them to the context for which they are best suited. This means looking beyond the tasks and responsibilities of a role to consider it in the broader context of the team, organisation, and external environment.
Planning the organisation’s leadership benches based on context-specific profiles makes the relevant decisions become 4x times more accurate compared to using a general competency model to predict leader success. Thus, integrating the role’s key relevant business contexts with the pre-identified competencies will definitely reveal the most effective leadership benches.
Phase Two: Experiences Based Development
Maintaining the organisation’s leadership bench healthy and effective requires a shift from Individual Development Plans to Individual Experience Plans; a shift that ensures the leaders are strategically developed and aligned with the business contexts, challenges, and key business drivers. Experiences -based development is the forward-thinking approach to create Organisation-Fit Leaders instead of investing in only Role-Fit Leaders.
Phase Three: Placement & Mobility
Depending on organisation’s key contexts to identify and develop the leadership benches does not guarantee their competence and maturity. Mobility does.
Your overall leadership bench management approach must be centralized on a planned mobility & performance enablement scheme: organisations must build flexible and agile leadership processes to enable its leaders to take part in cross-departmental assignments, and to be part of its gig projects. For example, 3M is famous for its “15% rule,” where leaders can take a portion of their time away from their “day jobs” to work on exciting innovations. Thus, Mobilising is always the key factor to ensure a healthy and effective leadership-bench.
The LBS Model with its three factors (Context, Experiences, and Mobility) can double the strength of the leadership bench compared to the traditional pipeline strategies. It fosters the organisation’s competitive advantage through building leaders who are capable of addressing the business challenges and the future scenarios. Thus, the shift toward a context-based leadership is a must.