What leading companies do

Today’s leadership training of Gen Xers and millennials to take the place of retiring baby boomers is producing a different kind of leader.
Feature Leadershiptraining Issue 1

From the pages of In Business magazine.

With baby boomers retiring at a pace of 10,000 per day, leadership training has been identified as a top strategic priority for employers here, there, and everywhere. But given how much the workplace has changed since the boomers underwent their training, what does leadership training look like for younger generations who will carry the torch?

To quantify the challenge somewhat, nearly half of the baby boom generation, born between 1946–64, has already retired. That’s an estimated 34 million people, including many in the executive suite, so leadership training of the sometimes-forgotten Gen X (1965-1980), the always-on-your-mind millennials (1981-1996), and even the newest workforce entry, the digitally marinated Gen Z, is of the utmost importance.

How important? According to Laura V. Page, area director of leadership and management programs at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, survey after survey shows that developing the next generation of leaders is high on the top 10 organizational challenges identified by both CEOs and human resource directors. However, the “right kind” of leadership training is something that is so complex and changing so fast that Josh Bersin, an internationally known HR and learning industry analyst, recently argued that “leadership development feels broken.”

For some thought leadership on repairing leadership development, we spoke to Page and the following area management training experts: Terry Siebert, president of Dale Carnegie Training in Madison; Susan Thomson, a partner with ActionCOACH; and Stacy Argue and Jon Stinemetz, leadership training specialists with American Family Insurance.

Top 10 challenge

As Page notes, one of Josh Bersin’s convictions is that leadership is no longer a skill needed just in the upper levels of an organization. Today, businesses need many, many more leaders because increasingly, work is accomplished in teams — project teams, ad hoc teams, cross-department teams, product teams, and research teams.

Organizations are simply not organized in the same hierarchical fashion as they were in the past. So, given all that has transpired in the workplace, it would be easy to assume the old top-down command structure, the my-way-or-the-highway approach, has become an organizational dinosaur. Not so fast.

While the top-down style of leadership no longer fits most of today’s organizations, it’s not quite accurate to say there are no situations where it would be effective, Page cautions. Two words — “it depends” — open up the need to analyze the situation. “A well-known model of leadership that has been around for a long time is literally called ‘Situational Leadership,’” Page states. “It can still give us insights into what works [and] when.”

Today, the four basic styles of leadership are directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating, but workers, the workplace, and the nature of work are changing in ways that make it increasingly rare that a directing style is a good fit. “I would say that a coaching approach fits more and more organizations today because more and more workers want to grow and learn fast, they want to work in teams, and they want to be involved in developing their own careers,” Page notes.

While there is no question that organizations are training a vastly different demographic than existed 25 years ago, there also is a change in what people are looking for from a framework standpoint. For example, Dale Carnegie’s flagship course on skills for leaders is still designed for supervisors and managers, but thanks to the preference of participants, the program now offers a three-day version of what once took eight weeks. They want to get it done faster with the same result, and they want a collaborative approach that not only gives them input, but also helps them learn and grow.

That’s a far cry from Siebert’s days in the master’s degree program at UW–Madison, when perhaps one-third of the classes had to do with team projects. “Fundamentally, it’s the same thing we were teaching over 100 years ago, as it relates to dealing with people and being an effective leader, but it’s within a completely different framework,” Siebert explains. “One of the things that’s been integrated into a lot of our leadership training is this whole idea of collaboration and working on teams. A lot of the young folks that are involved in these classes started doing team projects when they were in high school.”

Based on Siebert’s interaction with clients, the Madison business community is getting better in terms of training the right way for today’s office environment. “It’s just different,” he notes. “Back when I was just an up-and-coming young manager, we used to get sent off for a couple of days to a skills seminar or maybe something at the college, and get an intense focus on a particular set of skills for a couple of days, and then they let us loose back at the office or the factory.

“That has absolutely changed, and it’s changed because we know more about how people learn and retain and actually apply that knowledge than we knew back then,” he adds.

In many cases, leadership trainees are asking for different things. According to Siebert, it all starts with the organization’s strategic plan. Where are they headed? Why are they headed there? How does this role or this person fit into that mix? “Then, the next step is what is the professional development plan for that particular employee?” Siebert explains. “What used to happen was that if you were good at something, if you were a good solo player or if you were a good team leader, you usually got to do more of what you were good at, or you were groomed to fit a particular slot on the organizational chart.

“That works until you run into somebody who is just a good, internally motivated leader and person,” Siebert adds, “and they are going to do a good job of whatever you ask them to do — not necessarily having that marry up with what they actually wanted to do.”

When forming a professional development plan for an individual employee, the best approach is to identify the employee’s values and, based on where the organization is headed, determine the best role for that employee. What would be fun? What would be the most impactful? What would allow them to learn what they want to learn? Where would they like to be steered in the next 1–2 years or the next 3–5 years?

“You can’t always accommodate what people are looking for, but that puts the employee or the young leader in the driver’s seat and much more accountable for their own learning and growing,” Siebert states. “We find it’s just a much more productive place to start and a much more productive conversation as they are being groomed.”

With that level of individual granularity, they are more likely to stay on board, especially if they have a management ambition. Many times, the depth of the training will be dictated by the size of the company and its budget, but the better training programs are highly individualized. “Oftentimes, we find that there is some basic communication and leadership and personal mastery and skill development around emotional intelligence and around effective personal and organizational communication, around how to hold people accountable and things that are more common [managerial] skills that need to be built,” Siebert says. “Those may be in a training program, but it’s not about sitting in a classroom for three days like we used to.

“What we’ve found to be much, much more effective is to have them come in for an hour or 90 minutes, dive deep into a topic, leave for a week and go practice the skill, and then come back with their coach and say, ‘Okay, this went well, or this didn’t go well,’ and how do I shift this or adjust that? So, whatever I’m learning, it works better the next time.”

Reverse mentoring

Mentoring others is an important leadership responsibility, but it’s not the sole province of senior executives and middle managers. With the my-way-or-the-highway edict a thing of the past, the management approach is no longer “do this,” but more like “we need to apply your skills here.” That sense of supervisory vulnerability, that the boss doesn’t know everything and needs the employee’s help to complete the skill-set circle, is an attractive quality in a supervisor and an opportunity to gain more “buy in” with reverse mentoring. As Siebert explains, that’s where the young folks become the trainers of the more experienced people, and there is an obvious area where that reversal can be effectively applied.

“How do I use social media more effectively?” Siebert asks. “The 60-year-old president of the company is probably not nearly as conversant in that area as the new employee who is 22 years old who grew up looking at an iPhone.”

According to Thomson, there also is a force multiplier that goes beyond social media. “They can jump in and help with that stuff [social media] very, very quickly,” she notes, “and I also think there is a lot to be said for a new, fresh perspective coming into the organization and saying, ‘Hey, why do you think that way? Have you ever thought about it this way?’

“When I was younger,” she adds, “I was always told ‘Hey, don’t go in and talk about what you would change until you understand why things are the way they are.’ That’s still holds true, but if that ‘why’ is just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, then younger people in that reverse mentorship have a lot to bring to the organization in terms of fresh energy and bright ideas.”

While boomers generally are given plaudits for having the interpersonal skills that still are important in today’s styles of leadership, for much of their careers these skills were put on the training back burner. “Interpersonal skills have long been important, although in the past they were notoriously neglected as a focus of leadership training,” Page states. “That has really changed as ‘soft skills’ have become recognized as core to leadership and management.”

There are many lists of soft skills, and the coveted skills of cultural competency is on most of them. There are many definitions of cultural competency, but Page defines it as the ability to communicate and function effectively and appropriately across cultures at home or abroad.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is another critical area with a recognized skill set. The four key skills in this set are: self-awareness, self-management, empathy/social awareness, and relationship management. In Page’s view, EI training is critically important to developing next generation leaders and managers for a very fundamental reason — organizations still are collections of human beings. “Today, those beings have the ability to move around a lot, seeking engagement, so I honestly think [EI] is the most important set of leadership skills,” she says.

Base on the available research, Page won’t get an argument from Thomson. “What we know through all the emotional intelligence work is that the people who have highly developed emotional intelligence skills tend to earn more and be much more promotable and be much happier and have happier teams than those with low emotional intelligence,” Thomson says. “That gets into all that personal mastery and really understanding and being aware of yourself and others and being able to manage yourself and others.

“It also gets into a couple of other factors like motivation and empathy and building skills around that,” Thomson adds, “and what we find is the stronger those skill sets are around emotional intelligence, the easier the path for that young leader as they are working with teams in a different role after going from employee to manager and manager to executive.”

As for the value of executives willing to be vulnerable and seek help for what they do not know, Thomson says underlings are more likely to appreciate it rather than lose faith in the executive because he or she doesn’t know something. There are some simple tools that are part of a system that makes asking for help an accepted part of corporate culture, not something that’s viewed as a weakness.

“People appreciate it and we have to train the manager to do it,” Thomson states. “Oftentimes, what we perceive is that when you hold a particular position, you’re supposed to have all the answers. That vulnerability, that ability to admit that you don’t have the answer to something, has a lot of fear around it. So, we actually have to train both the folks who have been around for a while and the folks who are coming into new roles to ask for help.”

With the younger generations in mind, internal training programs can be valuable in terms of teaching future leaders how to relate to people under their supervision, get beyond raw skill development, and explain how to be successful “right here, right now, in this environment,” Thomson says. “They can be very effective, but they need to be done right. Many times, what we see is that somebody in upper management is given the responsibility of mentoring a younger person, but there is no system built around it, so the expectations aren’t clear.”

Whether they actually want to be a mentor is not part of the discussion, she notes, and for that and other reasons, these programs tend to fall apart. However, if they are systematized, if expectations are laid out for everyone, and if it’s an opt-in from the mentee and the mentor’s standpoint, those approaches can work, particularly when navigating the politics
of an individual organization.

Resisting the resistence

What happens if an organization remains too entrenched in old ways of doing things for leadership training to be effective? Cultural defects are easy to see in the rearview mirror, but not as easy to detect when you’re in the middle of declining sales and other signs of poor business performance. So, should cultural transformation come before leadership training?

“Either in front or simultaneously,” Thomson states. “The thing about corporate culture is that if you’re not intentional about culture, a culture will find its way in, and it’s probably not the culture you wanted or intended.”

Getting connected … face to face

Given the amount of time young professionals are connected to iPhones and other computing devices (and not in face-to-face contact with other human beings), and given the need for young, up-and-coming managers to have good interpersonal skills, how is this “disconnect” best addressed in their leadership training?

Jon Stinemetz and Stacy Argue (pictured, right), both leadership development specialists with American Family Insurance, say the so-called “soft skills” can be approached in a number of different ways in leadership training. Topics such as mindfulness can help them understand the importance of being “present” in situations and how that contributes to their success, but there is no substitute for practice experience, or exposure to that time where they get off their phones and get away from technology.

Considering the habits already ingrained during their young lifetimes, that’s easier said than done, but it helps to reinforce the fact that technology can also be a benefit when relating to another person, not always a detriment. “So, it’s about sharing those opportunities and really giving them time to practice both the interpersonal skills away from technology, but also those interpersonal skills that the technology can help enhance,” Argue states.

There is a bit of role playing of situations that arise in the workplace, especially as part of American Family’s Aspiring Leader program, a six-month training which includes real-life experiences, project teams, networking across the enterprise with different leaders, and engaging in “empathy interviews” where participants learn what it feels like to have an actual conversation with a stranger. These experiential exercises not only give them an opportunity practice, but also the advantage of real-time feedback in those moments.

Hundreds of people apply for the program, which naturally serves to help leadership trainers by encouraging conversations among members of diverse groups. “It’s just a truly great experience when you walk into the room and you see that diversity and you hear their conversations and really see them teach each other,” Stinemetz says. “It makes our job remarkably easier when they are teaching each other.”

These efforts are enhanced by American Family’s enterprise resource groups. These affinity groups are designed to facilitate diversity and inclusion, but they also play a role in training the next generation of leaders. “That’s absolutely a major component because we want them, as they are going through their leadership training, whether they just starting their journey or they are a tenured leader, we want them to be involved,” Stinemetz explained. “That’s where some of that empathy comes through because they are getting that experience from a diverse perspective and understanding and how to relate to individuals in different resource groups.”

Susan Thomson, a partner in ActionCOACH, says her organization also builds interpersonal communication and skills training into its programs. Thomson notes that training is great for teaching concepts, psychology, and generally “what to say,” and it allows trainees to get into the nitty gritty of what actually happens in the workplace. “It’s a safe place to ask questions and practice,” she adds. “For example, in training, they’ll learn about behavioral styles and how those play out in the workplace. They’ll learn how to identify a person’s behavioral style and how to adapt their language and pace to build rapport with that person quickly.”

In coaching, they’ll learn what to say in specific situations or with specific people, and even more importantly, what not to say. “For example, how do they talk with a direct report or a team member who’s not pulling their weight, or seems to be actively refusing to do something?” Thomson asks. “What do they say or not say when someone makes them angry or feel intimidated?”

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