Developing Our Next Generation of Leaders
In 1973, I was employed in the head office of a large Canadian company and recall that many of the employees at that time had start dates going back to the 1940s. It wasn't only the hourly work force; many of the leaders or managers had similar seniority dates. Employers and employees stuck together under a "cradle to grave" philosophy. A person coming out of school could expect a lifetime of employment with one employer. And employers could expect a lifetime of commitment out of a new hire. Correspondingly, employers would generally develop talent and leadership from within the company.
Today, for many organizations, it's quite a different story. Not only are fewer people sticking around, those that do are often viewed with suspicion if they stay with one firm for more then ten years. Now it is assumed that growth occurs through change in employment. In this new reality, the development of leadership has changed dramatically.
In the post war era, organizations would generally hire based upon a number of factors. For example, an organization would assess a candidate in terms of who they know (for example, hiring relatives), their level of education and skills, geography (availability), physical stamina, gender—even the ability to play on the company hockey team.
In addition, companies conducted one or two interviews and several reference checks regarding the person's previous attendance record, attitude, and skills. Leaders were most likely promoted from within based upon technical skills. What mattered was what you knew and who you knew.
In the 1970s and very early 1980s, a transformation began. Employers understood that an organization could only realize its goals if it spent more time ensuring a strong match or "job fit" between employee and job. More sophisticated tools and processes were introduced for assessing candidates, such as the use of psychometric assessments.
This transformation wasn't just driven by the focus on organizational goals. External factors also caused employers to become more vigilant and realize the mounting costs associated with "hiring" errors. In terms of law, we see the introduction of the Ontario Human Rights Code and severance pay (Employment Standards Act), changes to the Workers' Compensation Act, and an increase in legal challenges from terminated employees. While the relative weight placed on some of these factors by employers was more perceived than real, such factors still had a serious impact on corporate thinking.
From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, organizations engaged in a lot of belt tightening and restructuring. During this period, the business climate became increasingly competitive and administratively challenging. Political volatility, stock market expectations, and global competition all affected profit margins. Downsizing, mergers, the reengineering of jobs, dividing operations into a multiplant format were all signs of the times.
In labour relations, concession bargaining, including roll backs, freezes, and two tier wage structures, dominated. Companies confronted their unions with the threat of moving their operations to the United States and demanded wage concessions as high as $4.00 per hour to remain in Canada. Companies were not talking about vision, culture, and growth but focusing on cutting staff and expenses, survival, and realignment.
Knowing the historical context is important if we are to understand where things are at now. The leadership of today has had their managerial "metal" tempered by events from the 1970s and onwards. These events have certainly not all been negative; however, many employers are still focused on survival and have a certain "hardness." This hardness needs to be softened by the development of a corporate vision and culture as well as making the necessary modifications to put ideas into practice.
In terms of employment practices, we need to focus on the vision and methods used in selecting, retaining, and promoting employees. If they are seriously flawed, they will impact upon our ability to hire and develop leaders. And we need leaders. The gurus of opinion surveys and statistics are predicting a vacuum in terms of the number (and I suggest quality) of leaders we will have available to run our nation—whether presidents, managers, team leaders, politicians, or union leaders.
There are a number of practices widely employed today which run counter to a healthy workplace.
Long Term Temporary Services: This is not the practice of hiring a person for vacation relief or pregnancy leave but rather the practice of hiring hourly and salaried personnel for extended periods through the use of a personnel agency. These people have been given a "temporary" label; however, such people are often at an employer's plant every day for several years. This situation occurs in both the profit and nonprofit sectors as well as with governments.
Contract Employees: A growing number of employers hire all staff on a formal contract basis. At first glance, these employees appear to be regular employees with the full range of benefits; however, the termination clause clearly states that the employer has the right to terminate for cause or, if not for cause, its liability is strictly limited to the Employment Standards Act.
Reengineering/Downgrading Roles: I often hear of restructuring resulting in a manager being terminated to make way for a very junior person (often requiring outside assistance, negating any potential cost savings) who takes up a more modest role. In the past, such managerial or supervisory jobs were not only functional but also were used as a training ground for future advancement. Often this restructuring approach effectively ensures that all future senior hires come from outside the organization.
- Practices For Hiring and Promoting: Employers need to spend more time identifying who they are and what they want. This is the "rock" on which the house is built. With this information in hand, employers need to build upon the 1970s approach to selection and also spend more time ensuring there is a "job fit" between employees and jobs. If more successes occurred in the hiring and promoting processes, some of the current practices used by employers would not be required (for example, contract employees). It takes 30 to 60 hours of searching to find the right person, including screening for education, technical abilities, personality, cognitive abilities, emotional being, attitude, organizational fit, and a job-related physical. There are no short cuts.
Why do I see such practices impacting upon the development of our workforce and our future leaders? Dr. Bartram, President Elect of the International Test Commission, has done some interesting research into 15 different attributes and ranked these based on impact to success on the job. A diverse group of raters independently agreed on the five most important attributes:
- Honesty and Integrity
- Motivation and Drive
- Interest in Work
- General Personality
I would suggest the long-term effects of employing people—and this is not to say that all employers are painted with the same brush—in a 'hardened" environment and utilizing the previously mentioned practices would certainly destroy or be counter-productive in bringing out such attributes within people. Expressed in other terms, without these attributes, our leaders will not be successful and be ill equipped for their jobs.
In looking at the development of our leaders for the next millennium, mentoring plays a key role. Many career mistakes can be prevented by a few words and a little direction from a mentor, as most of today's successful leaders can attest to.
In the HRM Research Quarterly (Winter 1997), some research was done that captures the concept of mentoring as well as how employers should handle their employees to bring out their best. Those currently in positions of authority need to pay attention to their efforts in supporting, developing, and mentoring future leaders.
The data indicates that most employees find the following behaviours in a manager supportive:
- engages in two way communication with their subordinates (shares information, asks employee's opinion, has frequent face-to-face meetings, gives regular feedback);
- provides positive feedback on a regular basis (gives recognition for a job well done; expresses confidence in employee's ability to do a difficult job well);
- mentors employees (utilizes employee's abilities, supports employee to higher ups, encourages independent work, helps employee learn from his/her mistakes);
- allows for autonomy (encourages employees to make decisions on their own; lets employees do the work from start to finish);
- recognizes that employees have a life outside of work (makes it easy for employees to rearrange their job schedule; allows employee to take advantage of flexible work arrangements).
Each generation is confronted with having to pass the torch to the next. As we approach the next millennium, our turn is here. Let us review our vision and practices and create an environment that supports the development of the next generation of leaders.