By Bill Byham, Ph.D.
The lack of appropriate job experience holds more people back from getting promoted into important management positions than any other factor.
Organizations want to know if a person has applied leadership and management competencies and personal attributes (motivation, high work standards) in situations similar to the middle or senior management positions for which the individual is being considered. High potential leaders may have demonstrated all the necessary competencies and attributes required in a lower-level position, but not in much more complicated “big time” roles.
So what happens?
Senior leaders making promotion decisions can’t bring themselves to jump a high potential individual one or more organizational levels without proof he or she can succeed, so they go outside of the organization to find people who have the experience they want. And, at the same time, send a message to the high potential people within their organization that there is not much opportunity for them in the organization.
Traditionally, leaders on their way up the organizational ladder are moved from one position to the next, through a progression of experiences and assignments that, over time, educates them about important aspects of the business and presents them with incrementally more difficult assignments that build leadership competencies and confidence.
But many organizations make a costly mistake: They default to the assumption that experience comes with time. In talent reviews they make time-based readiness estimates like “ready in two years” or “ready in five years.” Under this job-by-job development approach, acceleration can be accomplished only by shortening a leader’s tenure in a given job or job level.
Organizations must rethink the concept of experience if they truly want to be successful. They have to determine how to take much of the risk out of major rapid upward movement of high performing, high potential individuals. It’s not sufficient to let time dictate how quickly your leaders gain the skill and experience needed to be ready for larger roles. Readiness does not come with having the same job title for a period of time; it evolves as leaders face significant challenges. We call them growth challenges. You can develop skill, knowledge, and experience much faster by providing accelerated learners with the right growth challenges at the right time.
Think of growth challenges as missions for accelerated learners. Business missions. Leadership missions. Crucial assignments to be carried out—not reckless, haphazard pursuits that put careers and the business at risk. Growth challenges are intentional assignments that make a targeted impact on individual leaders and the organization. They are designed by you and your management team to meet business objectives while growing the specific leadership skills, knowledge, and experience that your accelerated learners need.
Growth challenges are unique to individuals
Growth challenges are assignments that prepare accelerated learners to perform effectively against the success profile of higher levels of leadership in your organization. Specifically, growth challenges:
Help leaders quickly gain experience important for success in future jobs.
Enable leaders to develop competencies and overcome derailers identified as keys to their development.
Provide leaders with broader insights, understanding, knowledge, and confidence, which prepare them for higher-level roles.
Growth challenges can be short term (one to six months) or long term (one year or longer). They can also be part of a job change, but very often are not.
These are some examples of high impact growth challenges:
Building and presenting a business case for (or against) a merger, acquisition, joint venture, or strategic alliance.
Implementing an organization-wide process or system change.
Developing and implementing a plan to cut business costs or control inventories.
Negotiating agreements with external alliance partners or regulatory organizations.
Leading in a high-pressure or high-visibility situation, such as a media relations challenge.
Leading a reduction in force (RIF).
When an organization uses growth challenges as the major building blocks of their acceleration system, you’ll notice that senior leaders will be continually scanning the business for organizational needs that can become growth challenges. Then, senior managers will match these challenges to accelerated learners whose development needs would be well served by conquering them. It’s not complex work, and with a bit of discipline and the application of some foundational principles, your senior management team will quickly build proficiency in this crucial component of your acceleration process.
But I do have one important caution: Some senior executives lack acumen for this sort of growth planning and might even resist taking it on, viewing it as Talent Management’s (HR’s) responsibility to generate accelerated-development assignments. In order to create the missions that challenge your emerging leaders in ways that truly elevate their readiness for larger roles, senior business leaders must be involved in identifying available assignments that best match learners’ development needs. Talent Management professionals need to encourage and remind top managers of their responsibility. They cannot do it alone!
Remember, the goal is to get your high potential players in the game—the business game—so your senior leaders must generate growth challenges that do so.
Learn more about how to accelerate learning from high impact growth assignments in Leaders Ready Now.
Bill Byham is DDI Founder and Executive Chairman.