Want to develop your emerging leaders? Give them control.
Senior executives always question the wisdom of allowing the emerging leaders in innovation leadership development programs to choose their own projects. The seniors ask “Why would we send them off to seek opportunities when we already have a long list that we need to capitalize on?” Here is how I answer:
1. Leaders make decisions. You are grooming these young high-potentials to take your place. Think about how you learned to make difficult strategic decisions. Were you prepared for that when you assumed your job? Would you have been better prepared if you had had the opportunity to practice?
2. Trust the process. Given an understanding of your competitive strategy and how it has been formulated, junior level employees will identify opportunities that align with that strategy. Asked to apply the same criteria to their ideas that would be applied to any new project: market demand, ease of implementation, alignment and suitability, and of course “innovativeness” – the competitive advantage the organization achieves, they will select opportunities that make sense to pursue. Along the way, there is ample time to reinforce their understanding of strategy (and perhaps to refine the way it is communicated) and to help them think like executives.
3. Let your sponsors do their jobs. Trust the senior people in your organization as sponsors. The team must convince a senior manager that their idea is worth pursuing. This sponsor then becomes accountable for the results. If a team can’t excite anyone in the organization about their idea then they need to either ditch it and propose something else or work harder to make a more convincing argument. Going through that process develops the skills required for driving innovation.
4. Step back and observe. If you are trying to identify future leaders you need see who steps up to the challenge. In every program there are participants who say it would have been better if we had provided a list of vetted projects. There are others who thrive on the opportunity to talk to senior leaders and customers, and examine their own ways of working to uncover unmet needs. The latter are the people you want leading your organization.
5. We learn because we need to. Adults learn best when there are real (ideally positive) consequences for the choices they make. Eliminating the choice by assigning a project also eliminates the learning opportunity. Participants engage on a whole different level when there’s a chance to see their projects implemented, to have bottom-line impact and change their career.
6. Use it for organizational learning. When senior managers engage in the process of critiquing junior people’s ideas, everyone learns. Juniors learn that senior management can disagree with one another (a revelation that never ceases to amaze me) and how to handle conflicting responses. Senior managers learn to be more transparent about how they prioritize projects. Seniors also get better at fostering innovation – that is, striking the balance between encouraging people to seek out new ideas while still realistically critiquing the ideas they propose. Again it comes down to learning – every good teacher manages the balance between revealing students’ weaknesses and encouraging them to do better.
7. Control means commitment. You want your high-potentials to be passionate about what they are doing, fully invested, internally driven. You can inspire that passion by giving them control and aligning what’s important to them with what’s critical to the organization. With the proper guidance, the risk is low that they will go off on a tangent or waste their time while the reward of people feeling like their choice matters, that they have personal impact on the business, is very high.