Developing tomorrow's growth leaders:

Clones or mutants?


Robert M. Tomasko


A common theme of several recent consulting assignments has been leadership development. Several companies asked me to evaluate worldwide best practices in identifying and cultivating future growth leaders.

A strong trend, across many industries, is for today's top executives (often yesterday's top growth champions) to take a direct role in developing the next generation. While this approach has advantages over the traditional approach of replicating the business school classroom in the corporate setting, it is one that comes with its own perils.

It runs the risk of creating a new generation of clones when changing business conditions may require mutants. Similarly, over-reliance on popular 360-degree assessments brings with it the danger of institutionalizing actions and and behaviors, once vital, but now possibly counterproductive. Concerns such as these are leading companies like Ford and General Electric, in the wake of CEO-turnover, to reexamine the premises of their much-imitated leadership development programs.

A pantheon of leaders. Leadership is most usefully studied in the context of the situations in which it is exercised. So a curriculum for leadership development should study both individual leaders and the situations in which they were especially effective. And ineffective. Look hard at Jack Welch's celebrated use of six sigma quality improvement and his ability to encourage GE's business units to sell services as well as products. But don't pass over his failure with Honeywell and the ongoing criticisms of GE's business and environmental ethics.

Executive development programs that are taught by today's leaders need to guard against cloning a cadre of hero-worshipers. One way to do this is to ensure the content of the sessions go beyond an examination of the current CEO's experiences. Designate a pantheon of leaders whose actions will be studied, individuals within the company and in other industries, as well as a range of political, social and historical personalities. Adjust the characters in the pantheon regularly, as the business' challenges change.

It may be a hard sell at Coca-Cola to encourage fast-trackers to learn from Pepsi's Roger Enrico with the intensity they give to their former leader, Roberto Goizueta. But Coke would be a stronger player if it did so.


© Robert M. Tomasko 2002



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