Let your people lead the change

By Chris Helm

Chris is fascinated by how people and businesses connect their aspirations together to create mutual benefit.

Right now, in offices all over the world, senior executives are huddled around trying to work out the answer to one big question….

“Who’s going to lead this business when we’re gone? And “gone” could mean when they retire in fifteen years’ time or in the next couple of weeks when some unforeseen disaster happens that wipes out half of the Board. No-one seems to have the definitive answer (and one simple answer probably doesn’t exist) but with so many people asking the question, it is surprising more isn’t being done to address the problem of a lack of emerging leaders.

One big reason behind the lack of leadership talent seems to be an inherent over-reliance on contractors and consultants to lead change projects. Whilst one of the key abilities of a leader in business is to embrace ambiguity and deliver change, most businesses seem to shy away from actually letting their staff run these projects, instead outsourcing to the mercenaries of the “contracting” world or to an expensive consulting firm. The former often has little long term loyalty and no interest in getting the job done on time and the latter, although they regularly do a great job, often create more of a dependence on themselves than a real capability in the people they hand back to.

So what to do….? Let’s look at what outcomes we want. Most business change/transformation projects involve the following to some degree or another:

  • Processes – New operating model
  • Technology – New systems
  • People – New ways of working

The business clearly needs help to make these things happen. But the most important outcome is that the business has someone in place to lead the “transformed” function once the change has taken place. So why are businesses still complaining that they struggle to develop home-grown leaders when they insist on giving the best leadership development activities (i.e. leading the change itself) to the contractors and consultants.

Great leadership development activities are context rich and the best ones are real. Sure, mistakes will be made and the pace of change may be slower but who doesn’t mind taking their time to create something of enduring quality?

Advice from the experts:

  1. Ensure you’re developing strong capability throughout and invest to support this, not via the silo of a business school programme on leadership but through small coached interactions, with consultants who walk patiently alongside your people, not arrogantly in front of them.
  2. Use contractors… but in a different way. They’ll be great for keeping the day to day processes running whilst your future leaders are delivering change, developing themselves and building your organisation’s human capital.
  3. Invest in consultants for specialist knowledge (such as IT integration or leadership coaching) and make sure they pass it on to your people.
  4. Finally, make sure your project benchmarks & metrics cover all of the above.

And one final thought – if this all seems like too much hassle, you might want to get back to your boardroom huddle and carry on avoiding the issue. After all, you can always buy talent…… right?


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