Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Accelerated Leaders or Manufactured Disgruntlement?

Executive Summary:
A popular trend among businesses, particularly among large corporations, is a program to accelerate the brightest university graduates to leadership positions within the company.  Beware the adoption of such a program without considering the pitfalls.

The Rest of the Story:
I’m not sure how the trend of Accelerated Leadership Programs, Accelerated Development Programs, Management Acceleration Programs, and all variety of other names, became such a trend among large businesses.  Someone must have written a book that leaders have taken to heart, or perhaps the universities have inspired the program and encouraged businesses to adopt them.

I’ve witnessed several of these programs and experienced some of the challenge, personally, of trying to manage everyone’s expectations.  My experience leads me to perceive that while the intentions of these programs are genuinely constructive, the challenges are many and the successes are few.

Generally, the programs work like this.  A company or corporation will leverage its reputation at prominent universities to recruit the best and brightest graduates.  The recruiting criteria vary, but the goal is to acquire the top of the graduating class.  The lure for the graduates is the invitation to work within a prominent company and the promise of an accelerated path to a leadership position through a regimen of assignments designed to provide a broad exposure to various business operations.

The company gets the top of the class from a highly respected school to fill its ranks and the recruit for the program is promised a structured path to prosperity and the fulfillment of his or her ambitions with considerably less left to chance.  It’s a classic win-win set-up.

I’ll be first in line of promoters of the vision that a company is as good as its people, and that filling the ranks of the business with the best available talent is an important strategy.  I also believe that those of us who work hardest in school should be sought after accordingly.  The challenges with this win-win set-up are many, and often sensitive, and I’ve witnessed more failure and disappointment than wins.

The first challenge is fairly obvious.  At the time that students are graduating, there may not be a need for their particular training at the company.  In order to keep the program alive, and to maintain its relationship with the university, the business must recruit a certain number of new graduates anyway.

This is one of the reasons that these programs are popular with large companies and corporations, and less so with smaller businesses.  Only the large businesses can make room for and budget for a steady stream of new talent.  This same challenge goes a little deeper.

The programs, to drive a broad understanding of the business, typically send participants to new assignments every six to twelve months.  Again, there may or may not be a need for personnel and the business function often is told to take on new staff, need or not.

Now there is a problem of finding or creating meaningful work for the assigned program participant.  One of two things generally happens.  Either the program participant is given someone else’s work, and that other employee is now uncertain and unhappy, or the program participant is given the undesirable, incidental work that college interns dread, but will do for their resume.

In this situation, at least three people are made unhappy.  The manager feels put-upon and dreads dealing with the surplus manpower.  The recruit feels under-appreciated and is disappointed that he or she is not being taken seriously.  Existing personnel in the function resent that their work is taken away, or resent the fact that a fresh-from-school team member thinks that he or she is entitled to something that they have worked hard for years to achieve.

If you are inclined to the view that the manager should be able to handle this balance and that it’s not such a big problem, consider the following.  The program participant may only be assigned to that unit for six months, no more than a year.  Now, consider your own skill sets and experience.  Did you learn to effectively perform your job in less than a year?  Do you realistically execute a project of any complexity or genuine business import in less than a year?

If you had to spend six months training a new person how to do the job in the first place, only to watch them depart as soon as they received only the rudiments of ability to perform the role so you could start over again with the next participant, would you really give that program participant one of the important jobs?  If you had to choose between disappointing a program participant you might never see again or disappointing your own personnel whom have worked for you for years, and hopefully will continue to do so for years, whom would you risk disappointing?

We’ve touched on another problem with most accelerated programs.  I’m a big believer in breadth of knowledge, particularly in leadership.  However, a certain amount of depth creates credibility.  After a certain time, and a certain number of assignments, typically about three year’s worth, that accelerated program participant will be expecting his or her first leadership position.  Assuming that the business can just up and create one, then let’s look at how much that program participant knows about the leadership role he or she is assigned.

How well can that individual mentor, coach, train, or lead a team if that person only has about six months of prior exposure to the role?  Granted, many of us have led teams where the team members knew the job better than we, and we learned to rely on their advice.  However, were any of those leadership opportunities our very first opportunities, or did we get them because we demonstrated some leadership ability and those teams needed a leader more than they needed an expert?

Now, suppose that the accelerated program participant in that first management position, has been led to believe that they have what they need to lead that group.  What if the group disagrees?  We now touch on another challenge.  Sometimes those program participants get a little arrogant.  Often, that arrogance is fostered.

Sometimes the participants are fed, or otherwise receive, the message that because they are on the program, they are better than fellow employees, or they deserve more than their fellow employees.  At the very least, they are told that they deserve a leadership position after moving about the corporation for three (or however many) years.  After all, they did do all of those assignments, something that more mature personnel with established families might be less inclined to accept.

Certainly, these program participants have earned something for accepting assignments and a lifestyle that few others might desire.  But do they deserve to lead a team?  And of course, no one likes investing so much in personnel, just to have things not work out the way we envisioned. 

Unfortunately, all that breadth of exposure and time in the business has created a person who is not particularly good at any role for the salary that is expected, and if they aren’t a natural leadership talent, we don’t have a use for that person that completes the program. 

Here is a common conversation between Human Resources and managers.
HR:  Can’t you take this ADP participant?
Manager:  I need someone that can lead this project and see it through, not someone that I have to train and who will leave me with an unfinished project in six months.
HR:  Can you take this ADP anyway and we’ll still find you the leader you need?
Manager:  I could have two entry-level people for what your ADP costs me. 
HR:  But we’ve invested so much on this participant already.
Manager:  Honestly, I don’t think your ADP is the kind of person I want on my team.

Now we have come to the crossroads of our examination of the program and we must challenge the execution of the vision and the business’ values.  The purpose of the program is to recruit the best and brightest talent into our companies, to improve the company and it’s long-term performance.  If we stick to that motive, then the best thing to do for our company is to put the best leaders in place when we have need for them.  If we pass up an excellent leader to install a program participant in order to keep a promise, then we compromise our own values. 

Obviously, if the program participant does demonstrate some solid leadership skills and is a good choice for the leadership position in question, then we don’t have a problem.  But what does a manager do when they must decide between a questionable program participant and a known solid leader candidate?  Most of us will decide on the known performer.  This means that either we break our promises to the program participants, or we accept that we might be jeopardizing the business by putting people in leadership positions that might not be capable.

The fundamental flaw in the whole accelerated program is the promise of a leadership position.  It’s simple.  Good grades do not make a good leader.  Neither does breadth of knowledge.  Sure, these may be helpful indicators or qualities, but they are not leadership.  In fact, if we have fed arrogance and accelerated aspirations to our program participants, then we may have very well fed them values that we do not want in our leaders.  Oops!

Most of these programs fail because we have not given our program participants the experience and training they need to succeed.  Chances are, they have moved from one petty project to another with little to show for their sacrifice, and they know it.  On top of that, we haven’t given them any real leadership training or education, coaching or mentoring.  Finally, when it comes time to give them the leadership position for which they have held out through all of the frustration, we either don’t have one to offer them, we set them up for failure, or we break our promise.

The end result is that these participants, if they don’t leave before the program is over, leave shortly after it is.  We end up investing all of our own time and energy and expense training some other company’s great new employee with leadership potential and we don’t have those best and brightest in our own company after all.

I’ve worked with and managed a number of accelerated development participants, and many of them were very bright and did show genuine potential, and they are to this day people that I would install on my team again at the first opportunity.  Unfortunately, many of them are no longer with the host company that invested so much in developing them.

I’ve painted a pretty grim picture of these accelerated leadership development programs.  I’ve experienced and witnessed everything that I have described.  However, I have also witnessed a few successes where the participants did go on to prove to be good leaders early in their careers and they did stay with the firm.

What was different that allowed these participants to succeed?  I’ll give you a short list of what I observed, then we can discuss how to adjust your program to drive success instead of failure.
  • Program participants learned that the projects and jobs everyone performs are difficult, require a great deal of skill and experience, and that not just anyone can do them (as opposed to believing that everything is quick and easy and that the participant can do anyone’s job just as well)
  • Program participants actively learned leadership traits and skills from good leaders while they completed their assignments
  • Program participants learned that they can’t and don’t know everything and learned when to ask for help or advice
  • Successful participants accepted longer assignments in areas of interest rather than shorter assignments to check boxes; they were challenged not assuaged
  • Program participants were patient enough to wait for the right-for-them leadership opportunity
  • Program participants were coached, and mentored rather than ignored until the next assignment came up

The vision for the program is an excellent one, so let’s figure out how to keep great talent rather than train it for our competitors.  Based on the elements that drove success for the few that I know, here are some suggestions.

First, don’t promise a leadership position as a guaranteed result of participating on the program.  Instead, promise a variety of assignments and leadership coaching and training that will help the participant be ready for leadership positions sooner.  Make it clear that readiness to lead will be on them, not an automatic reward.

Establish a budget and a series of assignments that are not dependent on need or opportunity within the functions.  If the corporate fund pays the program participant’s salary, you’ll have people begging for them, rather than turning them away.  Also, assign program participants to leaders and managers with the best coaching and development skills.

Make it a formal part of the program for leaders and managers to directly mentor program participants in the skills of leadership.  They may need guidelines and coaching to make this happen in a meaningful way.  You want your up-and-coming leaders to learn how strong leaders do lead well, not how less-than-great leaders do things.

Establish a bona-fide track and set of positions for the participants to follow.  Let the first few assignments be established, not options.  If positions for program participants are perpetually part of the staffing plan and they never open or close, but simply receive a new rotation every year, then you create less stress around finding places to assign participants.  It’s better to have managers begging for participants to fill empty roles, than HR personnel begging managers to take unwanted participants.

Make assignments no shorter than one year.  You might make exceptions for spending time experiencing roles that professionals generally don’t experience or for roles where the point is to simply see and experience the role, but not to learn it.  Examples might be spending two or three weeks rotating among the production jobs on the plant floor, or a few days working in customer support at a call center, or two or three months in the field installing equipment.  I’ve done some of this myself, and sent a few of my personnel to do some of these things too.  It’s good exposure that provides humbling insight.

However, we must, in addition to teaching program participants some leadership skills, also teach them some useful trade skills.  Learning how to do project management, or engineering, or logistics and procurement, or marketing, takes time.  One does not learn how to do these jobs in less than a year. 

Make sure that by the end of the rotation, that job function would be happy to have that participant as a permanent member of the team and would pay that person’s salary at three-years-experience grade to have them back.  Don’t let them leave an assignment with a “good-riddance.”

Finally, manage your participants’ attitudes.  Constantly discuss the participants’ expectations and the company’s and managers’ expectations.  Make and execute plans to close the gaps.  Keep the participants’ expectations rooted in reality.  Let them know that their good grades and continued excellent performance earn them the opportunity to participate and learn.  Don’t let them tell you that by tolerating the program, they have earned a high-profile position and salary.

An accelerated development program is a good strategy as long as it fulfills the vision of installing the best and brightest talent into your business.  Good grades in school are an indicator, but not a guarantee.  Recruit the top of the class and let the program be both a training ground and a proving ground.  Don’t make promises your business can’t keep, and be sure that your participants are getting meaningful, constructive experience.  Finally, help those participants find the right places for them within your business, not just a role that was promised before you ever go to know them.

Stay wise, friends.

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