Developing Your Talent Pool for Growth & Productivity Using the Apprenticeship Concept
To be continuously successful in the long term whether you are a $1 million or a $50 billion company you need to develop a strong talent pool of good leaders and technically superior people. A company’s ability to grow and achieve ambitious performance targets rest largely on the quality of its people, particularly its leaders. In the long term your human capital is the only competitive advantage that you can have as your competitors can easily replicate your technology or work around your patents. Globalization has also put every company on an equal footing except for the quality of your people.
Leaders at All Levels by Ram Charan. 171 pages. ISBN 978-0-7879-8559-2
Leaders at All Levels was published in 2008 and written by Ram Charan. Ram Charan is a world-renowned advisor to business leaders and corporate boards, a bestselling author, and an award-winning teacher. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books including Know-How, What the CEO Wants You to Know, Boards that Deliver, and the New York Times best-seller, Execution, co-written with Larry Bossidy the former CEO of Honeywell.
Furthermore Ram Charan is a very insightful presenter at conferences and should you have an opportunity to attend one of his presentations it would be well worth the effort. He is also a confirmed workaholic with no wife or children. He lives to work and until recently he did not own a home and spent every night in a hotel room or an associate’s residence doing consulting work, sitting on boards or writing a book. Regardless of his location, his assistants in Dallas would send him new clothes via courier and he would return his dirty laundry to them. This lifestyle surely gives a new definition to the term “workaholic.”
For Presidents and managers involved with leadership development the book Leaders at All Levels is an eye-opening guide on how to get succession right. This is the first book that I have come across that discusses the development of leaders as an apprenticeship process. Just like artisans and trades people over the centuries have learned though practical experience, Charan argues that it is the same for developing leaders. The core of the book revolves around the insight that leadership is an apprentice trade. You learn about 20% of it from courses and books. You learn 80% on the job, by taking feedback and learning from a series of experiences and challenges. You learn most through a series of developmental experiences, some which are planned and some which are not. For example, you learn the most through turnarounds, fix-its, start-ups and when you experience significant shifts in scope and scale of responsibilities such as having profit and loss responsibilities for a business unit. The premise is simple: people learn leadership by leading. If you structure your leadership development program so that it makes sense of this natural process of learning and accelerate the opportunities for your people then you will have a competitive advantage.
Here are some of the things that Charan says that you must change to have the apprenticeship model work.
Identify leadership early and correctly. Plan the apprenticeship for fast growth by seeking out the right job for a developing leader instead of looking for the right leader for a job you already have. Your plan should include developmental assignments, both temporary and permanent. It should incorporate lots of feedback to accelerate development.
That’s why the boss’s role is so important which is why Charan recommends making the development of other leaders part of every leader’s job. On that point I believe that Charan did not go far enough. The most important and knowledgeable person to assess an individual’s potential and to mentor that individual to take on a higher role in the organization layer is not the immediate manager but the manager-once-removed because he or she has a much broader perspective than the immediate manager. Furthermore the manager-once-removed is a natural mentor and much better at developing a leader for the future requirements of the company than an outside professional coach. The professional coaching business has prospered over the past five years and professional coaches can be effective when they are coaching an individual on specific skills deficiencies or when there is no higher functional person to coach a President, a controller, a supply chain or human resources executive. However professional coaches do not understand the needs of a company like a manager-once-removed and the professional coach may inadvertently be teaching concepts that do not support the specific long term goals of the company.
There is also an excellent chapter on how to recognize leadership potential. Charan talks about identifying leadership talent early and focuses on individual who are already in the organization. I believe this should be taken further and an emphasis should be placed on improving the selection process to identify new recruits who have the potential to move up at least 2 organizational layers above the role they are being recruited for. This chapter also includes ways to evaluate basic leadership skills, cultural fit, broad business acumen and a “wide cognitive bandwidth” or the capacity and inclination to see things in a broader context. Examples that Charan gives is a Marketing VP who sees how marketing relates to the overall company direction or a young sales rep who seems to have a handle on what her sales manager does and even what the regional sales director does. These high potential individuals are demonstrating the ability to see the bigger picture and think further out than other managers by their understanding of understanding greater complexity.
Another new idea introduced by Charan that ties into understanding complexity is the concept of “concentric learning. This holds that leaders expand their capabilities through deliberate practice of core skills in increasingly complex situations.
There are also excellent chapters on customizing a leaders’ growth path and how to manage a talent pool system in a company. An appendix on “Building Blocks of the Apprenticeship Model” also gives advice for both individuals and companies.
I strongly recommend that this book be read by any leader who wants to achieve productivity and growth by having a process of developing leaders. I believe that this method of developing leaders is much more effective and less costly than sending perceived high potentials to executive training programs and executive MBAs and then finding out that you sent the wrong person or they used this expensive program as a lever to move to another company. Companies should do an ROI on expensive executive development programs and executive MBAs.
If you are a senior executive it gives you a road map for taking charge for your company’s growth and having a system in place for selecting successors for leadership jobs at all level, including the President. In conclusion once you have a system in place it will mean that you will have a faster and better pipeline to promote from within and that will give you a much better batting average for successful promotion. I believe that too much reliance on hiring from outside is like gambling at a casino with the odds stacked again you. When you hire from outside the new leader may not understand the culture or your business complexity and many leaders fail within one year of being hired or make poor decisions that impact on the success of the company.
Also if you are concerned with leadership development for yourself and are aspiring to be promoted to a more senior role you should read this book. You only have one short career and it is important that you learn what you need to do to be a good leader.
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