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Fuelling emerging leaders to power business agility


The demand for great leadership outstrips supply. Yet development investment is increasingly scrutinised, particularly for emerging leaders. But what if investing in emerging leaders is a strategy for lifting business agility and performance?

Demand for leadership is increasing, and not just at the top

Disruption and accelerated change is the new norm in business and leaders must contend with unprecedented change occurring at an unprecedented pace. At the same time, cost pressures mean there is less enthusiasm to commit time and investment to leadership development, particularly for emerging leaders who are often seen as a less urgent priority.

We know that agile businesses are ones that respond faster and more confidently to changing market conditions. We also know that ‘distributed leadership’ and workforce empowerment foster greater business agility. This means there is a new, compelling reason to invest in emerging leaders. In this environment of rapid change and financial constraint, organisations must create a stronger, more diverse leadership profile by empowering emerging leaders.

Two trends show how emerging leaders can be developed on-the-job to increase business agility:

  1. From learning programs to learning organisations
  2. Development as strategy acceleration

From learning programs to learning organisations

In the minds of many, leadership development means a traditional learning program where leaders come together outside of their regular work to build self-awareness, networks and capability. These programs typically involve lengthy diagnostic and design processes, followed by staged delivery to a large number of cohorts over time. However, this programmatic approach is being challenged by:

  • The difficulty of maintaining program currency and relevance in an increasingly fast-moving environment; and
  • Increasing reluctance to take people away from their regular work to focus on development.

Development today means providing people with opportunities to learn from their work, rather than needing to be taken away from it[1].

The idea of the learning organisation – an organisation that facilitates the ongoing learning of its members and continuously transforms itself – has been influential since the publication of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline in 1990. The rationale for the learning organisation is perhaps more compelling now than ever. That is: In situations of rapid change, only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive can sustain their competitive performance.

So how can we help emerging leaders learn ‘in-the-job? Two examples provide food for thought:

  1. Leader-led learning: The concept of leader as teacher is not new, but we are seeing it manifest in some new and interesting ways.
  • Role modelled from the top: Imagine the CEO of a major global business addressing his top 200 leaders and, in an impromptu session, explicitly teaching and demonstrating to them how he expects them to communicate with their people. We’ve seen it happen, and observed its impact.
  • Centrally designed, locally delivered by leaders: Technology now makes it possible to consistently deliver blended-learning programs to emerging leaders across different geographies. These programs blend rich educational content online and on-demand; directed inquiry processes like observation, practice and reflection; and leader-led conversations where leaders facilitate learning rather than ‘teach’.
  1. Do-it-yourself (DIY) transformation: Herminia Ibarra[2] discovered that emerging leaders can progress by creating their own opportunities within their ‘day job’ to experiment with leadership. Her idea is that you practise your way into leadership, rather than think your way into it – thus affecting your own personal transformation.

Organisations can support emerging leaders to affect their own DIY transformation by encouraging them to:

  • Prioritise activities that attune them to the environment beyond their team and organisation.
  • Seize opportunities to work on projects outside their areas of expertise. This allows them to expand the range of people in their network and the professional contribution they make.
  • Experiment, particularly in terms of the ways they connect and engage with people.

Some businesses are systematising this kind of development. One leading power management company identified the main development experiences required to shape emerging leaders and linked these with situations likely to deliver the relevant lessons. Aspiring leaders are now encouraged to plan their on the job experiences with these in mind, allowing them to work on their leadership while working on the business[3].

Development as strategy acceleration

To equip emerging leaders for success in their environment, it’s important to develop them in that environment and expose them to relevant emerging challenges. Developing leaders in context, by focussing on strategic priorities, can accelerate strategy execution as well as develop leaders.

Action learning through business projects is not a new idea. But state of the art leadership development is increasingly occurring within the context of ongoing work initiatives[4]. For example, one leading Australian business applied teams of its leaders to each of its strategic priorities, as an action learning experience. Teams were given clearly defined outcomes and timeframes to work towards. They were also equipped with micro, targeted development sessions to fuel their success, including immersive interactions with cutting edge technology researchers.

Another strategy enhancing initiative we are experimenting with at Nous Group is mini-secondments for our emerging leaders. We are creating these in partnership with organisations which we can both contribute to and learn from. This allows us to strengthen our strategic capabilities at high speed by broadening our people’s perspectives and building relationships with partners and clients. So far, this has been a productive experiment. We are seeing increased engagement from our emerging leaders, and fast return on investment. Initiatives like this are powerful because they make learning a part of the main game, rather than a side-show.

Moving toward a learning organisation and implementing these new development techniques can improve business agility, accelerate strategic initiatives, and build new capabilities just when they are needed. In this dynamic, fast moving, digital world the business case for investing in distributed leadership and the next generation of leaders has never been more compelling.

This article was originally published in HRD Magazine, June 2016. View online.

[1] Centre for Creative Leadership,

[2] Explored most fully in “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader”, 2015

[3] Cynthia D. McCauley, Morgan W. McCall, Jr, “Using Experience to Shape Leadership Talent: How Organizations Shape On-the-Job Development”, 2014 (Co-published by the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and sponsored by the Center for Creative Leadership)

[4] Gina Hernez-Broome, Richard L. Hughes, Center for Creative Leadership, Leadership Development: Past, Present and Future

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