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Are You Failing to Prepare the Next Generation of C-Suite Leaders?

As published in the Harvard Business Review

“Let’s just get through this.”

For many people leaders, that’s been the mantra for the past three years. “Let’s just get through this moment in time, focus on the short-term solutions for our immediate needs, and when things go back to normal, we’ll deal with all the issues we’ve been putting on the backburner.”

Now it’s time to deal with those issues: new business models; supply chain; environmental, social, and governance (ESG); new ways of working; new technologies; new talent demands; new productivity gaps. And executives are realizing that the bench of up-and-coming leaders lack the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to lead their companies into the future.

It’s not enough to ask Learning & Development teams to conduct leadership trainings on how to be empathetic, lead virtual teams, and have courageous conversations. While these are often good and pleasant, micro trainings can’t solve macro problems—and I’m here to tell you it won’t make a difference.

What’s needed now is nothing short of a total overhaul of how organizations develop and prepare their leaders to move their company into the future and propel themselves into the C-suite.

You’re probably thinking, “Upskilling? We’ve been doing that for years!” And you’re right. It’s always been used as a long-term investment that enables performance.

But while it used to be a “nice to have,” it’s now a business-critical priority.

Of course, every organization has needs that run from incredibly strategic to deeply personal—some need their people leaders to transform entire functions, solve their supply chain challenges, and retain customers, while others need their people leaders to accelerate their digital transformation, exhibit flexibility, and showcase empathy.

Whatever the case may be, here are three ways organizations can get started and identify the right steps to align the skills of people leaders with the goals of the C-suite:

De-silo your research and get brave.

Most companies are drowning in employee and candidate data. The problem isn’t quantity; it’s connectivity. Employee and candidate data only tells part of the story, and usually HR owns and protects that data.

Why does this matter? Because very few listening tools can help a front-line manager identify the future skills required of their team to meet the needs of customers.

So, what to do? Stop viewing employee feedback in isolation and start connecting it with consumer, customer, and departmental data—including consultant scopes and spend. Create a cross-functional team that’s accountable for telling the whole story about what your people need, especially your people leaders.

Ask the team to identify where they are failing the customer experience. Ask them why employees are leaving and what impact that has on partners. Ask them whether you’re hiring consultants to solve the problems our own team should be able to solve.

Create your own list of painful, difficult questions, and ask the team to see what the data can tell you.

No one in your organization can own this view except the C-suite. So don’t look to anyone else to authorize this. CEO, CHRO/CPO, CFO, COO…you own this.

Stop focusing on symptoms and start focusing on root causes.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.” People also leave companies that think a meditation app is going to compensate for leaders who don’t know how to lead.

I’m not knocking mediation apps. (I have two on my phone). But asking the right questions and getting to the root of what needs to change across the enterprise to meet growth objectives is key.

Offering employees a free subscription to a meditation app can have a positive impact on the employees’ day-to-day, but it’s not going to solve what’s causing them to feel stressed and burnt out in the first place.

Instead, to decrease blood pressure and increase job satisfaction, leaders can ask questions like: “Are our people leaders trained to lead?” “Do they know how to communicate the strategy and translate it for their teams?” “Do people leaders know how to display end-to-end thinking and take action?” “Are people leaders aware of what’s needed from them to meet C-suite goals?” And then ask “why” as you begin the process to uncover root causes.

Activate the enterprise to meet C-suite goals.

Now that you have gathered feedback and collected data, it’s time to activate the skills and competencies needed of people leaders—and across the enterprise—to meet the goals of the C-suite.

To do this, leaders must determine where the skills gaps are, identify which skills the people leaders lack, and decide which skills to refine to lead the organization into the future. Now is the time to create trainings and build a learning culture to bring people leaders up to speed, and to equip them with the skills they will need.

But it doesn’t end there. Along with ongoing and holistic learning, your organization must set goals and success targets. The 70/20/10 model is going to do a lot here, meaning 70% of training is done via on-the-job experience, 20% is done via relationships and interactions with others, and 10% is done from formal training and education. In addition to this, a measurement process will show whether training is making a difference. It can’t just be about how trainees feel—it’s about connecting the training back to business outcomes.

None of this is easy. It requires a little courage, some C-suite ownership, and a lot of curiosity. Your managers are holding your teams together, and they deserve to be positioned to succeed, learn, and grow into the next generation of leaders.

Chris Thornton is a Senior Principal and member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group. In his role, Chris serves as a source of strategic counsel for Senior Executives with client firms, advising them on how to help clients achieve Executive alignment, transform their cultures and equip and enable people managers to lead and embed change. An expert in the people side of change with both client-side and consulting experience, Chris has worked with leading companies including Nestlé, Pfizer, and GE Aviation to do change right and make it stick. He is also an active speaker on business transformation, a driver of innovation in Daggerwing’s breadth of change consulting services, and the host of Daggerwing Group’s podcast, Change@Work. Chris and his wife were featured in the New York Times for their love of pie.