Compete for the present while preparing for the future
In his classic song “A Change is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke wrote about the change that was sweeping the United States from the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. The forces that were transforming the country back then are the same forces that are driving today’s conversations around the world about inequality, immigration, international trade, and economic nationalism…
But, how are our leaders and managers supposed to make sense of these long-term macro-environmental changes when shareholders’ quarterly demands consume most of our attention? This is one of the single greatest challenges facing our workforce today – and it is at the forefront of academic research in management and strategy. British professor Robert Grant describes the problem this way, “How do we compete for the present, while preparing for the future?” In other words, how should our organizations meet the needs of our current customers so that we can grow and change to meet the demands of our future customers? Developing this “organizational ambidexterity” allows a business to focus on immediate priorities while simultaneously preparing the organization for future success. This dynamic capability is the gold standard for remaining competitive in an external environment that is characterized by rapid and profound change.
Our firm has spent a lot of time thinking about how to help our clients answer these two questions. One solution we have used to prepare managers for balancing these competing pressures is an intensive residential and cohort-based leadership development program that is designed to balance practical training with an opportunity for focused reflection. These programs are usually held at an off-site location and can last anywhere from two days to two weeks depending on organizational needs. This format yields the immediate benefits of improving transactional skills with the opportunity to develop the long-term transformational mindsets necessary to understand the macro-environmental and industry trends. We have found there are three essential elements that make these programs successful.
#1 Focused Thematic Organization. The program should be specifically tailored for the developmental needs of the organization. For a week-long program, we recommend no more than three themes that may include initiatives such as developing a global mindset, driving strategic alignment, or talent management. These cross-functional themes challenge participants from across the organization to work together to foster networks that support future success. In many organizations, managers are promoted based on their technical proficiency or internal knowledge of the product or organization (e.g., transactional skills). However, the transition to senior leadership involves developing an awareness of corporate strategy and the external movements within the industry. The residential training option gives these High-Mach Type-A personalities the time and space to step back and see the big-picture (e.g., transformational leadership).
#2 Executive Involvement. The visible and active participation of executive leadership throughout the program experience is absolutely essential. First, senior leadership must be involved beforehand in identifying participants and programmatic themes. Second, they must also be engaged in creative and honest self-reflection during the session so they can be seen modelling the desired behaviors. In our experience, we have found that alumni of the program also welcome the opportunity to interact with the new participants. These executives can be included as panel participants, content experts, and presentation critics like in the television show Shark Tank. Finally, it is crucial that executive leadership be involved in the post-program follow-up activities… such as #3 Practicum Research.
#3 Practicum Research. Practicum research is the perfect example of a high-impact activity that inspires organizational ambidexterity. By inviting small cross-functional teams to work together on real-world issues the firm faces, its best talent is mobilized to solve its biggest problems. There are two options that can be successful. First, you can ask the participant teams to identify the problem themselves, work with an executive sponsor to research solutions, and then present findings back to the executive team. Or, you can have the executive team identify a list of possible research topics from which the participant teams can choose. The benefit of the first option is that it forces participants to think like executives – thereby accelerating their development. However, the second option reduces the time required to identify an acceptable research topic. This option also prevents the scenario where teams identify an issue that senior leadership does not believe merits significant investigation. This practicum research activity can be presented during the program for verification, but should include a period of time – after the program – to work collaboratively before presenting the findings back to the executive team. This has the benefit of extending the learning beyond the boundaries of the training session and also continuously engages senior leadership with cutting edge and transformational ideas.
We’ve found that even those organizations that have well-developed talent management capabilities sometimes become focused on transactional efficiency to the detriment of the long-term health of the firm. These intense residential programs are the perfect option for preparing high-potential managers to make the transition to senior leadership. Challenging them with focused and creative reflection meets the personal needs of the managers and equips them for the long-term challenges posed by an ever-changing external environment.
Matthew C. Mitchell, PhD
Principal, Bâton Global