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What are the Critical Periods for Leadership Skill Growth?

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D.The idea of a “critical period for learning” is most often thought of as it relates to mastering a second language. That is, when does someone learn a new language quickest? What is the timeframe—for language, between approximately ages 5 and 13—after which it is much harder to become a fluent speaker?

But is there a critical period for gaining confidence in and learning a new leadership skill? Does growth come easier at a certain stage of a learner’s career, based on experience and opportunity? And if so, is this the same for every skill, or are some skills better-suited than others to growth at certain stages of leadership? Leaders in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 on average only spent 5.4 hours a month on development (spanning all types of learning: on-the-job learning, learning from others, and formal learning), leaving little room for error resulting from misspent time. HR and Talent Management professionals setting up new leadership development programs can do so more accurately, and with less risk, by factoring in what skills grow most for each level of leadership.

In the Global Leadership Forecast, spanning over 13,000 leaders, we looked at the difference in leader-reported skill confidence between high- and low-tenure leaders at each of four levels of leadership:

  • Frontline: Supervisor, team leader, location or department manager, foreman, etc.
  • Mid-level: Leader of first-level leaders (group manager, district manager, etc.)
  • Higher-level: Leader/Manager of mid-level leaders (director, department head, vice president, etc.)
  • Senior-level: Executives and those in policy-making positions (CEO, COO, CFO, executive VP, senior VP, etc.)

This told us the average amount of change for each leader level and for each skill. The chart below shows the results:

What are the Critical Periods for Leadership Skill Growth?

This chart shows 12 common leader skills, and the rate of growth in each skill between a first-year leader at that level and one with several years of experience. For example, skill in developing strong networks/partnerships grew moderately at each of the four leader levels, while coaching and developing others grew rapidly for frontline leaders and moderately at all other levels.

Overall, leader skill growth was strongest at the frontline level—clearly, new leaders face a major transition from individual contributor to people leader—and became gradually weaker (but growth never stopped entirely) at each step up the leadership ladder. Even C-suite leaders build confidence in many of their skills through the experience and development opportunities they encounter in their role.

This research also tells us the skills where leaders grow most for each of the four leader levels:

  • For frontline leaders – leader confidence grew quickest for skills in coaching, harnessing employee creativity (first-time leaders have to shift from being an idea generator to being an idea advocate), identifying future talent, leading across generations (Baby Boomers through Millennials), and managing change within a workgroup.
  • For mid-level leaders – leader confidence grew quickest for identifying future talent and leading across generations—in both cases, their span of responsibility is larger at the mid-level, meaning a wider range of employees, and often, more generational diversity.
  • For higher-level leaders – leader confidence grew quickest for managing change (in their case, change spanning a full department or business unit), with several other skills growing at moderate rates.
  • For senior-level leaders – at this level, leader confidence slows, with no skills growing at a rapid pace, but it doesn’t stop. These leaders continue to grow in their coaching, communicating, interacting, and networking skills, and also in their confidence leading across generations and in managing change—which for them, is typically at the enterprise level.

Two additional skill groups had common characteristics and are worth noting:

  • “Evergreen”/foundational leader skills – Three skills grow at similar rates across almost all levels of leadership: building consensus and commitment, communicating and interacting with others, and developing networks and partnerships. These skills are valuable targets for leadership development all the way up to the senior level. For these skills, the window for slow yet steady growth never closes.
  • Intercultural skills – For global leadership skills, intercultural business communication skills grew first, at the frontline (making them a good choice for the first cultural skills in a development sequence). This may be a case of a simple lack of opportunity: Only 10 percent of frontline leaders lead people in different countries, while for higher-level leaders this number jumps to 23 percent. However, integrating oneself into intercultural environments and leading across countries and cultures grew at moderate rates at the mid and higher-levels, making these skills better-suited as development targets for mid- and higher level leaders.

Though this research allowed us to spot general trends in leader skill confidence across levels, it doesn’t mean, of course, that every leader grows the same way at the same time—structured diagnosis tools

can identify when and how personal skill needs vary from what’s typical. In addition to a critical growth periods view, development programs should also be rooted in the unique demands and responsibilities of each level of leadership, to decide which skills are targeted at which leader level.

Don’t miss the opportunity to match development targets to development timing, cutting leaders off from their most critical windows for growth and making it more difficult or impossible for them to reach their full skill potential. When building development programs, capitalize on leaders’ natural growth trajectories. Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Learn more about how critical periods for leadership growth can be used to craft a well-calibrated leadership development program. Get more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including 17 additional highly actionable findings about the current state of leadership, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent.

Posted: 09 Jun, 2015,

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