Where have all the Leaders gone?


And why are we surprised?

At a business forum at Exeter University Business School recently, the discussion turned to the real immediate issue facing many in the room. This was described as a crisis in available management and leadership talent. It was not just the recruitment companies but the wider audience who were genuinely concerned.

The cause of this leadership crisis seems to be the result of years of focused cost reduction. In effect, a self-inflicted wound. British companies have not invested in their home grown talent and as a result it was leaving.

With training budgets constantly being cut and salaries decreasing in real terms over the whole of this century, is it any wonder UK plc. is in this parlous state. (Do check this out for yourself - I see adverts for HR roles everyday with salaries less then I was earning 16 years ago for the equivalent job!)

We still have fantastic people with great aspirations and enormous potential joining the job market. We have more graduates than ever before leaving our Universities so why are we so short of good leaders and managers? At Performance First we believe this is due to the following factors:

1. Less investment in formal structured training for leaders at every level of the business. The days of the multi module, 3-5 day intensive training programmes are long gone. It is now common for clients to ask for 90 minute or half day workshops if they are doing any development at all. E-learning and distance learning has replaced connection with people. So where do potential and existing leaders get immersed fully in the subject of leading people, teams and organisations? It cannot be done online. It is not in the intellectual sterility of the one day executive programme run by the academic who has never experienced the real world of work. Leadership is still a contact sport needing contact time with experienced leaders. It is bloody and messy and requires reinforcement and assessment over time. Just like training for pilots or doctors, leadership needs to be honed and become part of the muscle memory. It needs continual practice, reinforcement, support, mentoring, CPD, annual assessment and feedback.

2. Short-Term Focus - Some argue that Generation Y and the new to market millennial Gen Z are not likely to stick around for long. They are probably right. - On average Gen Y stays 2.5 years in a company. So why would you invest in them if they are going to leave and go to the competition?

Combine this with the predominantly US/UK culture of extreme short-termism where a vision is not 25 years like Tata or Toyota but 3 if you’re lucky. Where a strategy is annual and where everything changes by the end of Q1or Q2 in response to the latest market report or change in stock price. Typically this finds companies driven to go for the ‘quick wins’ cutting training, freezing recruitment and imposing travel bans carte blanche in order to make the figures look artificially better for investors and shareholders at year end. The outcome in real terms is far more costly. Those people who you have been identified as talent, who want to learn, who joined you for the international experience and development opportunities, become disillusioned and walk straight out the door. Which comes first? The fickle millennial or the short term company. Are we not a product of their environment?

The HR and L&D professionals who map our succession and focus on identifying and developing our leaders find it impossible to plan a year ahead without interruption making their job impossible. When they leave disillusioned and frustrated, do we then replace them with less qualified, less experienced and cheaper ‘human resources’?

3. Inexperienced Leadership - A leader’s primary role is to nurture talent. Experienced leaders are rarely threatened by young talent challenging upwards and jumping at the opportunity for more responsibility. These leaders focus on providing on the job opportunities for their successors to grow, they allow them space to make mistakes and learn from them. They mentor and coach as a matter of course. They protect their people and fight for them at the annual promotion round and they set very clear objectives both in terms of role but also in development expectations.

Leaders who have been thrown into a leadership role with no training, and who have spent their career to that point focused on individual contribution rarely have this mindset. As a result their drive to achieve and shine can be at the expense of their people, who they may regard as competition. They do not make the time to set clear objectives, review performance, discuss career expectations and development needs.

In many cases the talent that has left looking for greener pastures and thinking the grass is greener elsewhere, finds instead a very similar landscape.

In a former life I was sharing my frustration with my CEO’s failure to recognise and develop talent. My mentor, the Group HR Director was a wise and experienced Indian and he shared a powerful metaphor. “Back home the biggest and most impressive tree is the Boabab. It is a huge, powerful and imposing with incredible branches that create great shade from the heat of the day. One problem” he said… “nothing grows underneath. Leaders can be like that.”

Come on you CEO’s and CFO’s think less about pleasing the institutional investor, the city broker or the financial press. Stop being so short-term and start building a sustainable strategy focused on growth and incremental performance improvement. As Richard Branson said

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to. If you look after your staff, they'll look after your customers. It's that simple.

Or take a leaf out of the British Olympic Cycling team

"Those guys have come through the Academy process together and grown up as senior elite international athletes together and I feel sure that through the rest of their careers, which I hope will be long and fruitful, that they'll continue to push each other and be a big part of our team for years to come."

Lets start paying it forward UK Plc!

Gordon Mackenzie


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