A collaborative approach to developing senior leaders

When time is short, decisions are many and there is no end to the challenges, senior leaders (and organisations) can sometimes forget about their own development.

However, while they might not need extra skills (they have generally already proven their competence to get the job), continuing their development through an integrated personalised and targeted approach is important - for themselves as well as role modelling the importance of development for others within the organisation.

What makes for good practice? In our experience, an assessment - feedback development planning - implementation cycle based on the leadership characteristics required for the organisations future works well for senior leaders.

Knowing what to develop

Upfront it’s important to understand what you need to develop, ie. the leadership qualities which will be required for the future of the organisation based on its strategy and direction. Time invested here clarifies expectations to senior leaders (and other leaders too) and ensures that development investment and efforts are appropriately directed.

Assessment & feedback

Once you know what you’re trying to develop, it’s important to have a comprehensive assessment process comprising a mix of inputs based on robust data.  Many organisations have their own 360 degree feedback process where individuals are rated by the people they work with (direct reports, peers, managers, customers, etc) on their performance against a set of organisational behavioural and leadership competencies.

While useful, this process (and others like it eg. Benchmarks®) paints only half the picture what is going on but not why. Insight into the underlying personality and motivational preferences driving the behaviours observed can be assessed through the use of other complementary psychometric tools such as Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ) or Motivation Questionnaire (MQ).

These tools can also be supplemented by the use of Career Path Appreciation (CPA), a semi-structured, one-to-one interview exploring an individuals career history and preferred approach to work, as well as the type of work complexity with which they feel comfortable. Developed by BIOSS, the outcome of the CPA is a recognition of the current scope of the leaders comfort to form judgments in the face of complexity and ambiguity and of their longer-term development potential.

Development planning & implementation

With a clear view of a senior leaders strengths and areas for improvement, development planning can begin.

Due to the nature of this extensive and highly individualised process, development plans formulated this way are unique to each senior leader. However, there are some common tactics (based on the 70:20:10 model) which can be considered for all senior leaders such as: coaching, mentoring, reverse mentoring, peer mentoring, increases in scale and scope of role, secondments, action learning, journal keeping, networking amongst peers, out of the ordinary experiences, and the use of specialists. Some of these activities can be also be shared as a group and, in the process, inculcate a learning culture within senior ranks. 

The key is developing a plan which will fit into a senior leaders personal routine and is challenging but does not become unmanageable. By involving leaders in the conversation from the outset, they are able to see development needs as they emerge through the feedback and debriefing process and identify activities which will work for them and their schedules.  In addition, senior leaders are comfortable working in longer timeframes so their plans should be longitudinal to reflect this.

At the end of the day, senior leaders are not judged by how much they have developed but on their performance. This means that all development must contribute to real and sustained change and results.

Implications for practice

So what does this mean for your senior leader development practices and processes?

  • Get clear about what  leadership success looks like in the organisation - now and in the future (you can engage the senior leaders collaboratively in defining this this is very powerful process)
  • Don’t forget about senior leaders they need a personalised approach
  • Use a mix of complementary assessment approaches to provide a robust and holistic perspective
  • This is not a one-size-fits-all approach while there are common developmental activities which can be adopted, a plan for each leader should be worked through on an individual basis
  • Identify other systemic activities to instil a culture of learning and reflection amongst senior leaders 
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