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Leadership development starts too late.

A tool belt with tools hanging from it.
Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

A recent research piece from Zenger Folkman had me nodding in agreement. The notion? Leadership -

  • it's easier to grasp when we're younger, ✅

  • an early start helps us sidestep detrimental habits, ✅

  • and the sooner we begin, the more time we have to refine our approach. ✅

The Zenger Folkman research that examined seventeen thousand leaders highlighted that only 10% of people participated in their company's leadership development process below the age of thirty.

I've found that almost everyone I've worked with, myself included, would have profited from embarking on this leadership quest earlier in our professional lives.

This train of thought led me to ponder the upcoming professional foray of my two college-aged children. In the new few years, they will step into a professional world dramatically reshaped by shifts in business models, artificial intelligence, and automation - a world that demands its future leaders to innovate and adapt like never before.

At this juncture, I am reminded of the brilliant Seth Godin's Avocado Principle, which suggests that if you wait until you really need an avocado, it will be too late because they ripen in advance. Therefore, it's necessary to anticipate your needs and prepare or act in advance, just as you would need to buy an avocado before it's ripe if you plan to use it at its peak ripeness.

Leadership and avocados - an intriguing connection my mind seems to be enjoying.

So, how can I contribute to this conversation sparked by Zenger Folkman's research on the belated commencement of leadership development? How can I make it resonate with my children and others about to join the workforce in a few short years?

Let's bring in Revan's axiom:

"For organisations to survive and grow, their rate of learning has to be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in their environment. Learning >= Change."

In my work as an executive coach, I've never seen this refuted in a meaningful way, so let's presume it to be true. Let's refocus this axiom on the individual:

"For knowledge workers to differentiate and succeed, their rate of learning has to be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in their environment."

Building upon Revan's axiom, we can develop the following propositions:

Proposition 1: Intelligence and technical competencies are necessary for success but are not sufficient for leadership. Leadership is, in fact, behavioural. More specifically, often, the difference between leadership success or failure comes down to behavioural skills such as communication, collaboration and prioritisation.

Proposition 2: Leadership is universally accepted as essential and represents a growth industry. Consequently, individuals should be motivated to excel, which necessitates appropriate training. Practising leadership without proper training risks ingraining bad habits. The maxim "practice makes perfect" only holds if the practice is correctly executed. Emerging leaders are practising on the job, whether adequately trained or not.

Proposition 3: Leaders are made, not born. This implies that anyone can learn to be an effective leader with the right guidance and opportunities.

Proposition 4: Traditional education often falls short in teaching the necessary skills for career success. While schools and universities excel at teaching us to write notes, memorise facts and formulas, and solve technical problems, they often overlook the skills crucial for leadership success. Success in collaborative environments, where technology and communication tools are used to share knowledge and ideas with colleagues and stakeholders and drive innovation and growth.

Proposition 5: Leadership development starts too late. Early career education typically focuses on technical skills and compliance with policies and procedures. In contrast, leadership development programs, often limited by cost constraints, are selective. These programs are also prone to flawed selection processes, influenced by past performance, visibility, politics, and favouritism.

Proposition 6: Incentives are often misaligned. Organisations tend to focus on improvements that yield short-term gains, spanning days, weeks, months, or the next quarter. On the other hand, individuals stand to gain significantly from a longer-term horizon, as the skills they develop early on compound throughout their 20-, 30-, or 40-year careers.

And so we arrive at:

Leadership development should begin earlier, ideally before one's career even starts, to increase the odds of having a successful career. By being accountable and focusing on personal leadership development from the outset, individuals can better equip themselves for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in their professional lives.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not merely about recognising the need for earlier leadership development but also about understanding the principles that anchor it. And the beauty of it is these principles can be self-taught, self-improved, and self-refined.

Drawing from my work coaching seasoned executives, I've been curating a universal leadership toolkit to gift my children and any other interested individuals. So far, this toolkit includes:

  • Grasping the table stakes,

  • Investing in oneself,

  • Crafting and owning your unique brand story,

  • Cultivating gravitas,

  • Enhancing communication skills,

  • Maintaining focus,

  • Making better decisions,

  • Engaging with stakeholders strategically,

  • Mastering the art of managing upward,

  • Running effective meetings,

  • Actively seeking feedback to foster self-awareness,

  • Navigating change and transitions,

  • Keeping an eye out for overused strengths that could become derailers,

  • Being a valuable team member.

This leaves us with a question: What leadership principles do you believe people should begin learning early in their careers?


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