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Six great tips to get a competitive edge

Because organizations are measured by results, they are always looking for ways to improve the bottom line.  Growth is one way to achieve this. However, it comes in many shapes and forms. The strategic imperative most often focuses on out-performing the competition by growing market share, developing more innovative products and building capacity. In all cases, what underlies the success of any type of expansion is a company’s talent – especially the skills and behaviors of its leaders.

While many larger organizations have established leadership development programs and succession plans in place, startups and smaller family-owned companies struggle to make a case for spending money on developing the leadership skills of their best and brightest. Even if they have the financial means, they don’t typically have the HR capacity to manage these activities, and/or the metrics to determine if there is a significant return on this type of investment (ROI). 

The truth is, smaller companies can create the same developmental opportunities for their managers and produce the highly-skilled, strategic leaders that can help their organizations grow. There are six best practices that have resulted from successful leadership development initiatives in large organizations. The same principles can guide smaller organizations to develop successful program designs.

1. Branding – An organization should predetermine the knowledge it wants its leaders to have, the essential technical and people skills, and the behaviors needed to perform effectively. While there may be a number of competencies that new leaders need to hone, chances are that smaller organizations will have to prioritize learning in order to design a comprehensive and affordable program. Initiatives built around these requirements result in leader branding – growing the type of employee best suited to lead the organization.
2. Executive Endorsement – Top management should be publically committed to and involved in any development activity from the very beginning. The credibility of any type of program and the potential for change depends on top-down support and executive engagement. Things like sponsorship and mentoring can go a long way to add credence to a program and keep executives visibly involved.
3. Alignment – Any leader behaviors must be aligned with the organization’s culture, values, and strategy in order to guarantee a development effort is cost effective and supports company initiatives. Practically, this means that learning should be built around business issues and solutions should be measured in terms of strategic goals and objectives. Aligning leader behaviors to strategy creates a strong rationale and opportunity for application of learning.
4. Rationale – Proper alignment of behaviors to strategy is a key reason for formal leadership development. The best programs develop the skills and behaviors that allow leaders to handle the strategic and tactical challenges the business faces.
5. Ownership and Accountability – The commitment and engagement of top talent in their own development elevates their experience and maximizes the outcomes. In addition, participants must be accountable for behaviors, performance, and identified outcomes. This means that participants must see the value of professional development for their careers – that there are some goals to work toward.
6. Identify and Measure Outcomes – Businesses must begin by defining the results they expect and then finding metrics to measure actual outcomes. At least initially, the true value of leader development is difficult to measure in quantitative terms. In the short-term, evaluation may be informal and anecdotal when it comes to impacting the bottom-line. However, as the gap between desired behaviors and target outcomes begins to close and leader behaviors dictate strategic activities, the value of development becomes more apparent and ROI is increasingly measureable.

In the past, not all small to mid-sized organizations have considered a formal development program because they lack the strategic resources to support it. However, the need for businesses to differentiate themselves and surpass their competition presents a strong argument in favor of leader development. Having the leadership that grows with the organization can result in short-term gains and in the long-term can increase retention and ensure a succession plan is firmly in place.

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