Restoring Leadership’s Luster: Increasing the appeal of a leadership career path.
Has leadership lost its luster?
If you pause to think about the last two years alone, you begin to see the burden that has been placed on employees, managers, and their leaders.
Business leaders were among the last to leave the office and work from home, and certainly among the first to return to the office. Meanwhile, leaders have been asked to develop a new array of skills to manage remote workforces. Oh, and they are mandated to do it all with an emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate approach.
It's no surprise, then, that Global Workforce of the Future, a survey done by LHH and The Adecco Group, has found evidence that the leadership track may no longer be held in high esteem by talent looking to advance their careers.
Survey respondents were asked to select the elements that, in their estimation, would describe “a successful working life.” At the top of the list was work-life balance (39%), being generally happy at work (32%), having job security (30%) and having some measure of control over where and when they work (30%).
Well down the list, only eight percent of respondents identified “being part of a leadership team” as a net contributor to a successful working life, and just nine per cent identified “having a positive influence on others’ careers.”
This cynicism about joining the leadership track seems to be most pronounced among younger workers: only eight percent of both Gen Z and Millennial workers showed any interest in ultimately becoming part of upper management.
Why do so few workers see a future for themselves in leadership? A lack of support to systemic, structural issues – seem to be playing a role.
Are we less interested in leading because there are fewer leadership opportunities?
Over the past several decades, there has been a movement in business to reduce or even eliminate middle management jobs to “flatten” an organization’s structure and promote more agile, cooperative decision making. Although the total elimination of middle management is not widely practiced, many organizations have reduced the number of leaders on this rung of the hierarchy for a variety of reasons, many of them related to flattening wage costs.
From a non-leader’s perspective, however, the decline of middle management opportunities could be viewed in a number of ways, most of them negative. Fewer opportunities mean fiercer competition for those middle management roles that are still available. That alone may turn off some top talent from even applying. We know from research that women are less likely to apply to roles that don’t match 100% of their skills or experience, whereas men tend to feel comfortable applying if they hit 50% of the job requirements.
Leadership responsibilities are expanding while support is in a steady decline.
It was not so long ago that leadership development was approached as a significant moment in the careers of leaders. Programs were robust and engaging, and could last from 12 to 18 months. Today, however, the frequency and duration of leadership development has declined as companies look for ways to trim talent management costs.
What was once an intensive opportunity to prepare leaders for the future has become a much more perfunctory approach. Year-long programs have been reduced to week or half day intensives. And ongoing leadership support – like coaching – continues to be rationed out for only the most senior leaders.
At the same time, the responsibilities of leaders have only grown. In addition to managing teams, meeting KPIs, and exceeding customer and stakeholder demands, leaders are increasingly being asked to guide the careers of the people they lead. All while having conversations about their physical and mental well-being to anticipate and prevent burn out and flight risks. The LHH/TAG survey has shown consistently that leaders do not feel they are properly prepared to take on all these new responsibilities. The complexities of the outer world are outpacing many leaders capacity to adapt and expand to the modern challenges of today’s business environment.
Restoring leadership’s luster: a checklist
For organizations that are worried about populating the leadership pipeline, it can be a daunting task to develop a strategy to attract top talent. But it can be done.
- Make sure you’re investing enough in the right type of leadership development to produce results. Few organizations would deny that good leaders make for good results. On that basis alone, organizations need to look carefully at what and how they are investing in leadership development and ask themselves some tough questions. Top of that list: is this really the right amount, and the right approach, and for the right talent, to instill new skills and mindsets in our leaders? You need to make leadership development robust enough that potential leaders see it as a viable path to learning and developing their careers.
- Remember that initial training is not enough. Organizations with strong leadership cultures make investments in programs to monitor their leaders progress after the initial learning opportunities. One of the best ways of doing that is coaching and mentoring, which not only supports the individual but also creates opportunities to ensure leaders are putting into practice what they have learned.
- Task your best leaders to identify and mentor future leaders. A formal mentorship program can produce multiple benefits, including the cultivation of a new generation of leaders. Through the mentoring relationship, top talent can gain valuable insight into the reality of a career in leadership. Make mentorship a core responsibility of your existing leaders, and an obligation for top talent as part of their overall career development journey.
- Be prepared to “sell” your best and brightest on a career in leadership. In the past, few companies had to sell their high potentials on a career in leadership. Most of us know that leadership translates into higher pay, better offices and perks. However, with leadership losing some of its luster as a career path, organizations may need to make deliberate efforts to promote these opportunities. That may rub some organizations the wrong way, particularly those who think that selling someone on a leadership career is counter-intuitive. However, there is no getting around the fact that fewer people aspire to lead. Organizations will have to demonstrate the individual benefits to their high potentials if they want to re-stock their leadership pipeline.
As career priorities evolve, so too must the internal initiatives to recruit and develop leaders. We’re in an age now where the trappings of a leadership career are no longer enough, on their own, to prompt people to seek leadership roles.
How will your organization advance its leadership capabilities and stock its pipeline?
With over 30,000 respondents from 25 countries, the annual Global Workforce of the Future research examines talent trends and preferences in today’s complex work environment. To read more of the full survey results, please access the full research paper here.
Jessica Conser is a dynamic human capital partner, educator and executive coach with 15+ years of progressive leadership experience. She has supported the development of more than 50,000 people globally through her leadership, talent development programs and coaching of others.