“How do we select the right development opportunities for our leaders?” This was a question recently asked of me by the General Manager of Organisational Development at a large infrastructure firm. This question was asked following a discussion about de-layering, and its potential impact not only within their organisation, but organisations in general. Within most organisations, career paths, development opportunities and leadership pipelines are premised on the notion of being able to, at some point, move up to a different level of work. And here lies a problem: after layers of an organisation are removed, these opportunities are simply no longer there.
When a step up becomes a leap
We find that a significant amount of our leadership coaching work involves helping leaders who have been promoted up a level within their organisation, only to find that the step up is much bigger than they had anticipated. This can leave new leaders struggling to cope with the increased complexity and demands of their new role, and lacking the experience and development necessary to succeed.
Beyond leadership development
Similar to the shifting notion of career from jobs towards employability over the past decade, leadership has shifted from development to experience sets. An experience set is an activity designed to build a specific capability within an individual. In terms of leadership, an experience can be anything from work on a specific project, work shadowing in a different area, or a secondment within or outside the organisation, aiming to develop specific capabilities. While these activities don’t represent anything new, the focus is now on capturing the learning that occurs as a result of these experiences.
One of the key aims of building experience sets is reflexivity. Reflexivity refers to the ability of a leader to reflect on what they’ve learned and change their self-concept as a result, as well as their ability to then apply this change to their new role or new context. We can liken these sets to lego blocks: it may seem difficult to understand how, individually, each connects to others, but when viewed together, groups of experience sets can be built to form different and unique careers.
The power of these experience sets lies in their ability to allow the individual to think about themselves differently. Their identity is shaped by the experience they undertake, feeding into the core of what leadership development is all about: building the capacity of an individual to reflect on and learn about themselves as they adapt to new and changing environments. True leadership occurs when people stop thinking about themselves as an accountant or an engineer or a technical expert, and begin to see themselves as a leader of others. Great leadership occurs when a leader begins to forget about themselves in the equation, and focuses purely on the people they lead and the achievement of agreed outcomes.
Using leadership development to foster identity
For many decades, identity theorists have explored how individuals construct their sense of identity. While there are many different approaches, one of the more interesting lines of enquiry has been the importance of communities in developing an identity. The communities we belong to, such as our profession, our occupation, and our sporting and hobby communities help to define how we think about ourselves. In relating this to experience sets, it is an important decision for organisations to choose experiences for individuals that help to build their sense of identity and belonging with the organisation.
A risk inherent in development is that the individual may leave the organisation. Research has shown that if an individual is given a development opportunity and that new skill is not learned within the organisation, 90% leave within 18 months. For this reason, when building experience sets for leaders, it is crucial to ensure that they retain a strong sense of connection to and identity with their organisation, even when they are sent outside of it to learn and build their capacity.