The Great Leadership Taboo

Plenty of CEOs and senior executives scoff at the idea of having anything to gain from leadership development. After all, if you’re running a business or a division of a corporate, you’re evidently accomplished in your role, so why would you need a guiding hand?

It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking and one of the reasons that over half of the Fortune 500 have either burned out or faded away in the past 15 years. As volatility and uncertainty across the business landscape have become the accepted norm, there’s no room for complacency and blind-spots in the top team.

The Human Resources Director is uniquely placed to understand where an individual executive, or the whole ExCo for that matter, may require additional support to help them achieve their goals faster.

With this in mind, Criticaleye polled a selection of HRDs on whether enough is being done to sharpen leadership skills among executives. The results show there is a gulf between how organisations are set up and what HRDs believe is required.

According to the results, 86 per cent identified a lack of leadership capability as a barrier to growth. Thirty-nine per cent said that their existing framework for reinforcing leadership skills is inadequate, while just over half (52 per cent) want to improve what is currently in place.

Matthew Blagg, CEO of Criticaleye, says “the figures clearly suggest that CEOs and leadership teams are not doing enough to ensure they have the right expertise in place for the future”.

Saying the “L” word
So, is there some kind of taboo around the question of leadership development for senior executives, including the CEO?

Orlagh Hunt, Group HR Director for Allied Irish Banks, Corporate Banking, Ireland, comments: “It is difficult to tell people they are not as good as they think they are, and also to get senior executives to focus on development.

“They should see life as a learning journey; no matter what your experience is you should always seek to learn and develop.”

A degree of openness or, to use a popular term at the moment, ‘curiosity’ is not always easy to find. Simon Laffin, Chairman of FlyBe Group, gives the example of trying to persuade a CEO to take on a mentor. “CEOs tend to have large egos…You are totally reliant on the CEO being open to having a mentor or not. I personally would encourage it but some don’t want it,” he says.

Yet our survey identified external mentoring and experiential learning as the most effective tools to support senior executives in performing at the highest level. These were followed by executive coaching, partnering with business schools and external courses.

Elements of a high-performing executive team
Organisations fixed on a hierarchical model are going to struggle in the current environment. An overly directive approach results in poor communication, inflexibility and an organisational culture where information and knowledge are withheld, rather than shared.

Such an environment won’t appeal to the best talent and everything seems to point to successful businesses adopting an agile model. According to the survey, the most important elements of a high-performing executive team include trust, constructive challenge and collaboration – all components of a flat hierarchy.

Another key element identified was a common purpose. Nicky Pattimore, HR Director at Equiniti, comments: “The leadership team has to be aligned with the purpose… we ran workshops with all the senior management team to ensure this. Consistency of messaging is critical and you have to have regular touchpoints with employees across the organisation.”

Difficulties arise when executives pursue their own agendas too aggressively. Indeed, the survey found that a lack of alignment over strategy is the primary reason for senior executives quitting.

Ian Cheshire, Chairman of Debenhams, suggests that the top team must genuinely agree where the future of the business lies. “Alignment comes when people have had the chance to work together and own the strategy. You can’t just hand them a to-do list,” he comments.

The HRD and CEO can create the right degree of openness and collaboration within the executive team, provided they’re willing to make the effort. “There will be moments as a HRD when you are standing alone,” says Orlagh. “All the pressure will be on you to tell the CEO about the issues within the business, largely because the other executives won’t raise it themselves.”

Ultimately, there can’t be any sacred cows or taboos in the executive team, especially when it relates to talent. “Some CEOs don’t find managing individuals within the team and the team dynamics that easy, [whereas other] leaders accept challenge as a natural part of a healthy team dynamic,” adds Orlagh.

“Even if you find it tough, as the HRD, it is important that you are willing and able to challenge. It is important that your relationship with the CEO is such that they know that you are doing it from a desire to enable their success, not from a point of ego.”

What are your thoughts on leadership development? If you have experiences and opinions that you’d like to share, please email marc@criticaleye.com

This article was inspired by Criticaleye’s recent HR Director and CEO Retreats
Find out more about our upcoming Asia Leadership Retreat or read more on Strengthening the Executive Team

Follow Criticaleye on LinkedIn 

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