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Developing Well Rounded Leaders – Future-Proofing Your Organization

A recent MBA World blog posting by Juliette Alban-Metcalfe makes a strong point about developing a learning culture in organizations, “we can’t afford to maintain the silos we’ve built up and ignored for years.” In this simple statement, she challenges us as L+D professionals to address a very important issue – Developing Well-Rounded Leaders.

Specifically, let’s look at midcareer professionals. For years, possibly decades, we have helped people develop expertise around specific jobs, or how to do their current job better. What was often neglected was the need to expand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our future leaders and executives. What we’ve created is a talent base that is very skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not well prepared for upper management of executive positions. For example, if you started in accounting you might end up as a director or VP of finance, but would you know anything about operations or marketing? If you started as an HR generalist you might end up as a benefits specialist or HR manager, but would you know the sales cycle of your organization or how your company really makes money?

Estimates are that by 2030, Baby Boomers will be completely out of the workforce. This presents a call to action and an opportunity, because the generation with the most breadth and depth of work experience will be leaving the workforce. We – as L+D departments and professionals – need to quickly rectify the silos of specialists we’ve created by broadening the role-specific training of the past in order to address the workforce needs of the future. Our challenge is to develop a new generation of company leaders capable of making well-rounded and well-informed decisions based on their experiences in a multitude of business areas.

So what types of things should we be helping employees to learn – and how? Some of the “basic” and important leadership skills include:

Strategy: Many employees don’t know the strategy and the vision of their organization. They are so focused on their individual job, or perhaps their business unit goals, they miss the big-picture future of the organization and the plan for getting there. The 2016 Wells Fargo scandal is a perfect example of midlevel leadership focusing on business unit goals (sales) and not the overall success of the business.

Competitor Knowledge: This is something we’ve seen particularly lacking in sales professionals. They know how to sell their own products or services, but get caught short in being able to “sell” them as the best choice in comparison to their competitors. For example, What is the difference between Uber and Lyft? Why would you choose Dropbox over Box? This is not to pick on sales professionals; in an ideal world ALL employees would understand their company mission, vision, strategy (see above) and competitive advantage. What makes your company unique and ultimately the better choice?

How the Company Makes Money: Surprisingly few individuals understand their company’s business model or how it makes (or spends) money. For example, a retail organization typically only nets 2 cents on every revenue dollar. Selling copiers or printers is really a loss leader, while the company makes their money on toner and ink. Understanding how the company makes money helps individuals to make better decisions regarding expenditures, negotiations, investments and more.

Continuous Improvement: Continuous improvement is a concept that every individual, at every level of an organization, should not only understand, but embrace. There is always a better way to do something and each individual should be responsible for ensuring that their job is done in the most logical, efficient, ethical manner. Continuous improvement is a structured process that helps a company make incremental improvements over time or achieve “breakthrough” improvements quickly.

Stakeholder Management: A stakeholder is someone with an interest or position on a topic. Everyone and every project has one or more stakeholders. Sometimes the stakeholders are the company’s customers or shareholders, sometimes they are the boss, and sometimes they can be the peer sitting in the next cubicle. Knowing who the stakeholders are (at the company level as well as the individual worker level) helps employees to “see the big picture” and make better decisions as a result.

These are just a few of the top skills needed in today’s fast-paced workplace. The next question is – how do we help employees acquire this kind of knowledge and skill? As most people are aware – knowing about something and being able to do something are two ends of a spectrum. It’s not enough to know your company’s competitive advantage or what continuous improvement is all about. Learning opportunities need to be structured to ensure real-world, on the job experiences.

One idea, which has been around for many decades, but which is rarely used, is job rotations. Anyone who aspires to leadership in an organization should work in at least three different areas of the business. Most importantly they should work in an area related to the customer. This might be operations, shipping, sales, etc. Unfortunately, most companies reserve their rotational programs for people who are already identified as “high potential.” A better approach would be to create an immersion program for all employees, so that everyone has a more well-rounded view of the organization. This not only will help in making employees more educated about the business and their role in it, but it also helps tremendously with retention. Most people who leave an organization do so because they feel there is no growth or advancement for them in their current role. But what if they were able to identify their own future role? Participating in a rotational program gives employees exposure to areas of the business they might never be a part of and could inspire them to contribute to the organization in many ways.

The focus on job-specific training is a thing of the past. Organizations must focus on developing well-rounded individuals who can take the organization into the future. The future success of our companies depends on the actions we take today to develop our future workforce.

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Note: This article was originally written for, and published by, MBA World, and co-authored with Keith Plemmons.