Plants in soil

Organisational Gardeners – How well is your talent nursery growing?

What happens in your organisation when a senior leadership role needs to be filled?

Often, in my experience, there is a scan completed across the rising talent, and a realisation that most potential senior leaders are just that i.e they have ‘potential’, but are not quite ready to move up into the role. Two things happen next; mostly, the organisation goes outside at significant cost and attracts some talent, or less often the internal candidate is still promoted and they stumble rather than glide into the more senior role.

Should we develop our own senior talent or attract / import?

The answer may not be as obvious as ‘a little bit of both’.

GE’s retired chairman, Jack Welch once described himself as a gardener, providing water and nourishment to his top people, and Welch regarded the main purpose of his role as ‘developing talent’. There is more to this surprising statement than at first glance.

Home grown leaders dominate the executive teams of some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies, and these companies are distinctive in the way they think about developing talent and effective succession planning, which is viewed as long-term and building a series of feeder groups up and down the entire leadership pipeline.

For these companies, the development of internal talent is systemic and deeply embedded in the way every leader thinks and acts and there are strong cultural traits that make growing your own senior leaders a core part of how to go about business – traits such as:

  • The talent strategy is tightly aligned with the business strategy
  • There is a well-defined CEO and executive succession plan to ensure top team continuity
  • The CEO owns and sets the talent agenda
  • The agenda is integrated into the way the company conducts its business
  • There is a clear understanding of the role of line leaders in the development of people
  • There is a higher value placed on leadership development and less tolerance of inappropriate behaviour aimed purely at hitting targets
  • There are regular talent conversations at executive level and an appreciation of ‘apprenticeship thinking’

So, if I want my company to more align with this thinking and be better at developing our own talent, how do we get on the right road? To enhance a cultural shift in how to grow local leaders, our experience points to the following:

  1. Scheduling a structured talent development and succession planning conference and include all senior leaders to design the leadership development process
  2. Cascade this process thinking through the company
  3. Design and implement leadership development programs that build depth across every critical position
  4. The CEO leads the initiatives and holds senior managers accountable around their commitment to leadership development
  5. Embed the expectation that the leaders of each business unit own the leadership development activities, and not ‘Human Resources’
  6. Move rising stars throughout the company in a structured way and expose them to the full range of business experiences

It is timely to consider the expectations the new generation might have of organisations and business leaders when it comes to talent. Are they happy to be bought and traded or will organisations that plant the seeds, tend to the nursery and harvest well win the engagement and performance prize?

“Growing your own” might have held a very different meaning in the seventies. In this new millennium it is proving to be a fertile field for future proofing your company.

What is the one piece of advice that you would offer regarding successful development and maintenance of a ‘talent nursery’ in an increasingly complex and connected world?

Brian Buchanan