The Leadership Pipeline

Article originally published on Dew-Point's blog: Performance Focus.

In their highly acclaimed book ‘The Leadership Pipeline – How to build the leadership-powered company’ Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel begin by highlighting the work carried out by Walt Mahler, a respected human resource consultant and teacher at General Electric during the early 1970’s.  

At that time, Walt Mahler’s work involved the GE succession planning process and in particular, the assessment of young GE leaders. Much of the work was focused on the transition from business manager to multi-business manager and the need to develop leadership potential and development plans.

From his work at GE and other companies, Walt Mahler observed a number of key points: 

  • There are significant differences in work requirements at various leadership levels that require different skills.
  • Some leaders are more successful than others. Those that appeared more successful were the ones that added appropriate skills as they moved up the leadership hierarchy.
  • Additionally, those that appeared more successful also changed their perspective on what was important and what they focused their time on as they moved from one level or position to the next.
  • Values also played an important part in success and the ability to see what was important in the new role. In other words, to achieve a broader perspective involving the new requirements of the job as opposed to still thinking and acting as if continuing in the previous role.

The Leadership Pipeline approach was borne out of and developed from this earlier work and is still as valid today as it was then. However, today’s environment has changed substantially from what it was some thirty years ago.

The demand for leadership greatly exceeds the supply. The need to fuel and feed the leadership pipeline has never been greater. The focus is on performance management processes and talent management programmes.

In many cases the potential for leadership and good management is unfulfilled. According to the authors of the Leadership Pipeline, ‘at least fifty percent of the people in leadership positions are operating at far below their assigned level. They have the potential to be leaders, but that potential is going unfulfilled’.

The issues often arise at the time of appointment to the first level as a manager. Up to this point in their career, most individuals have operated as individual contributors. Whether their role is in sales, marketing, finance, manufacturing or engineering, for example, their skill requirements are primarily technical and professional. They contribute by doing the assigned work within given time frames and set objectives. Typically the skill requirements would involve some degree of project planning, time management, personal organisation, quality management, as examples.

At a point where people become competent individual contributors who produce results, especially when seen as good team players and communicators, they are considered for additional responsibilities and subsequently promotion to first-line management. They arrive at level one.

Whilst it may appear a straightforward move in career progression new appointees often fail to clear the first hurdle as managers and leaders.

Why? So often it is a case of a reluctance to change; they want to keep doing the activities that made them successful. As a result, people make the transition from individual contributor to manager-leader without making a behavioural or value-based transition. In effect, they become managers without accepting the requirements of the role. They fail to learn the required performance skills that are critical to the transition process.

It is a similar case with the second level of the leadership pipeline. Few companies address this transition directly in their management development programmes even though this is the level where an organisation’s management and leadership foundation is constructed and the people-driven factors of team performance are developed.

The following is a typical case at level one – an important first step in the management and leadership process:

Bob is at Passage One – From Managing Self to Managing Others – having recently been promoted to the manager of his group. Previously, Bob had proven to be a crackerjack engineer, the best problem-solver in the department. Technically, he was superior, and this fact earned him promotion. As a manager, however, Bob relied on a hands-on, problem solving approach that had worked for him as an individual-contributor engineer over the past seven years. It is a work style he enjoys and is comfortable with; his work values dictate that he figure out the engineering solution himself. But it is also what prevents him from demonstrating the leadership of which he is capable. Typically, Bob ends up competing with his own direct reports when he gives them an assignment. It smothers them psychologically, thus wasting his time and theirs. He needs to stop relying on his work skills and valuing his ability to solve problems himself and learn to plan the work that needs to be done, select good people to do it, set objectives, hold people accountable for results, and offer feedback. Bob needs to learn all this not only to be an effective leader now but later as well. This first turn is where he will acquire people management and team leadership skills – skills that will be essential for him when he arrives at future passages.  -  Extracted from ‘The Leadership Pipeline’

The route from individual contributor to manager-leader is not simply a case of changing job titles, but is more a case of transforming the role into new skill requirements and capabilities requiring the execution of new responsibilities and the achievement of results. This development requires a shift in behaviour and values, an emphasis on interpersonal relationships, processes and the achievement of team-driven results.

View part 2 of 'The Leadership Pipeline'