Who Owns Executive Development?
State Expectations: Over the past couple of weeks the Irish news has been dominated by a particularly sad case. The body of a murdered teenage boy was found in a field in County Kildare where it had been dumped, an inglorious end to a troubled life. The controversy was around whether the State, in the guise of the HSE, should have done more to protect this vulnerable young person. If the State had played a more active role, would the outcome have been different?
Personal Responsibility: Within organizations, a similar debate (albeit with much less dramatic consequences) takes place around executive development. When a person joins an organization, should their development be driven by the ‘talent management’ system or do they maintain personal ownership? On the surface, these distinctions may seem minor. In practice, they have a major impact on talent development and personal growth. Here’s how.
DIY School: Several organizations that I worked with have effectively ‘delegated’ management development to individual executives. Want to do an MBA? Go ahead. Want to watch the boxed set of Desperate Housewives? Go ahead! We (the organization) are only concerned about what you produce during the working day. Outside of this, your time is your own. The organization wouldn’t dream of telling you to go to mass or to play snooker – you decide what to do in your personal life. In similar vein, the (mistaken) view is that the organization should not tell you to improve your business skills. The system may not openly communicate ‘you own your own development’. Sometimes this has to be inferred by a lack of policy and the absence of real conversations around this i.e. it is a sin of omission.
There are several problems with the DIY approach to executive development. Firstly, a culture where individuals ‘own their own development’ usually gets interpreted, as ‘this organization does not care about my development’. Secondly, delegating executive development (an area of real expertise) to individual employees is a recipe for mediocrity. The people who are already great players will usually continue their own development; those in need of most support, will often do nothing. Executives need structure and objective advice in this critical area. Finally, executive development should not be seen as an illegitimate intrusion in the lives of senior staff. Ensuring that executives fulfill their role is a key organization task, not something that can be dipped into on ad hoc basis. Can you tell that I’m not a fan of the DIY philosophy?
So, an organization should ‘take over’ executive development completely? Well…that approach has its own downsides.
Nanny School: In some companies, executives are brought into a ‘womb’ of development activities. Their skill levels are rated against a ‘corporate’ model of leadership competencies. They may be given 1800 or 3600 feedback before completing an orchestrated sequence of development activities (Leadership Progressions 1, Leadership Progressions 2 etc.). Given enough exposure to this, executives come to believe that the organization has 100% ownership of their development. The net effect can be a lack of innovation and responsibility, with executives opting out of thinking for themselves
Joint Responsibility: In relation to troubled children in state care, I certainly believe that the state has a duty of care and should do everything in its power to deliver this. But this does not dissolve the responsibility for families and for individuals to look after their own interests. In similar vein, organizations should direct talent development but this is a shared ownership with the individual executive. While organizations should be passionate about maximizing their ‘walking capital’, this does not dissolve the responsibility for individual executives to take an active role in their own development, combining on-the-job work assignments with structured reflection and concept development sessions.
Fog Shifting: The best-managed organizations make these ‘lines of responsibility’ clear. ‘We will do X and you will do Y’. It’s a fog shifting game. Sometime the logistics of running the system is outsourced to a consulting group, ensuring that it remains centre stage. The bottom line is that there is no argument in favour of ambiguity in an organization. Understanding the ownership of executive development is a perfect example of this.