Your leadership pipeline probably sucks

Leadership Pipeline

Here’s a funny story that probably won’t be that funny to you: back in summer 2013, when I worked at McKesson on a business school internship, I got to sit in a couple of “leadership pipeline” meetings. These were meetings for the top dogs, essentially, to look at who they have in the pipeline that maybe could become “a strategic leader” or some such down the road. McKesson makes billions of dollars every year, so you’d assume this was a formalized, specific, research-driven process, right? No. It was a clusterf*ck on wheels headed towards an oil refinery with a book of matches. And because the meeting was about a fluffy topic like “leaders of tomorrow” and not about financial deliverables, no one really wanted to be there.

You hear all the time about studies where companies are “concerned” about their leadership pipeline. Eventually, new people become leaders — brought in from outside, a lot of the time — and the company keeps making money. So maybe it’s not really that big of an issue. But it seems like more people should honestly care, right? Hell, at least it does to me.

Final thing about that McKesson gig and those meetings before we get into this: at the meetings, you’d always hear the same 2-3 names; they were typically the lieutenants of the current leadership. There’s an awkward political tango there, though. “Well, Steve is ready to be promoted, but I kinda like him running point for me right now because it’s making me look better, so let’s just keep him where he is for a bit…” Steve just got screwed by being good at his current job, which is supposedly the quality that’s supposed to get you rewarded. Oh, well!

Consultants and Leadership Pipelines

See that “consultant” tag down below, eh?

Check out these fancy stats:

The ability to develop leadership programs for millennials is cited as an area of weakness by 60% of HR and business leaders worldwide across all industries, according to a study of 3,300 business and HR leaders from 106 countries.

60 percent? Honestly surprised it’s not higher. Now check this:

The Deloitte report revealed that only 7% of organizations surveyed had strong programs to build millennial leaders. The proportion of respondents rating leadership as “very important”  rose by 32% over the last year and the capability gap increased, according to the report.

7 percent have strong programs? Surprised that’s not lower. 

Here are a few problems, IMHO:

People don’t really care about leadership: They care about making money. A monkey and a tiger could be your CEO and your CFO, and if y’all were printing money, no one would bat an eyelash. That’s life.

We define leadership wrong: We always view it as chasing a set of deliverables. It’s not. That’s what employees do. Leaders are different. They should be thinking about it more along the lines of coaching and guiding. Problem is, most people become a manager and get more money and think “Damn, now I gotta chase those deliverables harder!” That’s moronic. When you’re a manager, you’re now responsible for the lives of other people to some extent. If all you do is chase deliverables like a dog in heat, you’re going to make those people’s lives awful.

Leadership programs are generally designed by the “consultant/thought leader” space: You know what that space inherently wants/needs? The program to kinda not work that great, because then you come back to them and they bill you for another, more advanced effort. Think about that. Consultants gotta eat, right?

Leadership Pipeline

Seems about right.

Leadership programs are typically about technical skills and process: They’re not about working with people, which is why you have situations where 95 percent of polled managers don’t really know what motivation is. If you’re going to manage other people, part of a leadership pipeline has to involve ideas about working with other people.

People don’t think about the skills of others: This is a “box” mentality. You come into an org doing one thing. If you want to help out with this other thing over here, you basically have to convince a bunch of people you have those skillsThat’s brutally hard to do. Managers look at their lives and think “OMG I am SO SO busy,” so they can’t be bothered to actually think about the strengths of their employees. If people can’t be bothered to say “Well, Steve is good at this and this…,” then how in the hell is a “leadership pipeline” going to work?

So, most of the problems come from how people think about the concepts. That’s hard to change. Your brain is pretty rigid in a lot of ways. But what it really comes down to is simply caring, right? You need to care about your leadership structure and your people and the opportunities you’re giving them. To do that, you need to take some time away — just some, not a ton — from caring about making money. That’s hard for a lot of people, especially the types of people who tend to become senior executives and get to make decisions around this.

So it goes back to thinking and caring, kinda like everything in life.

Problem is, most people think and care at work and that leads them to, “I got it! Let’s buy a system or an interface or hire a consultant!” That’s miserable. It also sends the wrong message to your people.

How would you effectively build up a leadership pipeline?


Ted Bauer

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