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Jeremy Blain

Performance Works International


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Leadership development: In-role CEOs and the benefits of enabling leadership at all levels

Empowering leaders at all levels isn’t just an option for L&D – it’s a necessity.

“Over-control destroys creativity and innovation,” Spotify’s global head of learning and development Johanna Bolin Tingvall told me, in an interview for my book, The Inner CEO: Unleashing Leaders At All Levels.  “At Spotify, we live in controlled chaos…it’s in the chaos that unexpected new, great things happen. That’s where innovation often comes from,” she said.

This resonated with me and represents modern innovation. It is something that can be nurtured by providing the platform, which Joanne refers to as ‘controlled chaos’.

Creating space for individual leadership at all levels – whilst at the same time tailoring that development to the needs of organisations – is a tricky balance.

Known as ‘hack weeks’, Spotify's initiative is a great opportunity to enable in-role CEOs’ to grow. In-role CEOs are individuals in an organisation who, regardless of their level, are empowered to be innovative, contribute strategically and to lead, and therefore have the opportunity to unleash their inner CEO. So how can organisations harness this opportunity in today’s challenging working environment?

The roadmap to individual leadership success

Leading at all levels is not, of course, a new idea, but the pressure to implement this is increasing, with the challenging pace of change, the shift to remote working, the onset of digital transformation and the urgent need to address equality, diversity and inclusion.

Despite this, during my research for this book, I was unable to find a practical toolkit for unleashing leaders at all levels. Where was the roadmap? Perhaps this gap is not surprising. Creating space for individual leadership at all levels – whilst at the same time tailoring that development to the needs of organisations – is a tricky balance.

Therefore, the core challenge is this: how can empowered innovation, creativity, leadership and great performance be fostered in structured ways? There is inevitably a degree of control in leadership training and development, and rightly so. The ideal balance is a structured learning and development programme that is adaptable to any organisation, and to a highly diverse workforce.

Five steps to success

At a time when time and resources are pressed, learning and development professionals also need support, through practical, actionable advice. This advice also needs to be flexible – i.e. a framework that is adaptable to organisations of any size, type, and to all kinds of workforces, whether traditional, dispersed or hybrid.

In my view, the essential dimensions needed by in-role CEOs who are at the heart of this framework are: attitude, culture, leadership, interpersonal skill and performance. It comes down to five key areas:

1. Behaviour

Before creating in role CEOs you have to make sure this is reflected in the attitude of the individual. This new level of responsibility, taking ownership and eventually leading projects will leave them feeling empowered. This will not make their core role suffer, but it will build upon their qualities, growing in their role and in the long run will make them more adaptable. Early conversations with line managers and learning and development leaders will ensure that in-role CEOs continue to deliver on their core role, while being supported to drive their leadership project.

2. Environment

When creating in role CEOs, you will need to have clear core values of the organisation for candidates to be fully correlated with the company's culture and vision, particularly in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion. Similarly, there is a key role for learning and development leaders in terms of creating a culture and mindset that fast-tracks empowerment and fosters psychological safety (as well as rewarding and recognising it appropriately). An organisational structure where in roles CEOs are encouraged also creates a platform for enhancing diversity, where individuals can develop their skills and abilities that they might not have realised possible when sticking to their job description.

3. Management

Management teams will need to evaluate their leadership, and develop an ‘empowered leadership model’. To successfully integrate this style of leadership, I introduce the 4E’s: envision, engage, execute and excel. From start to end, this process allows an assessment of an individual to locate their current stage and is complete with guidance on how to coach individuals to encourage and monitor their progress. They will need a 90-day roadmap that identifies a timeline for core activities, expected outputs, and suitable points for development reviews.

4. Relationships

Building strong relationships with individuals adopting interpersonal skills to aid interactions will in turn create strong working partnerships. This style of leadership focuses on engagement, which will be the key to empowering employees. The ‘personal development mosaic’ included in my book is packed with suggestions as to how in-role CEOs can develop, across a matrix of knowledge, behaviours, leadership and management skills. My advice is to encourage in-role CEOs to lead others – for example, a project team. This will help them to quickly develop these skills.

5. Targets

Establishing in-role CEOs will also have an impact on overall team performance. Monitoring progress against organisational targets is part of the process. Measuring against the 90-day roadmap tracker enables progress against the outputs and development targets agreed with their line managers. There also needs to be guidance in place for organisations to help them quantify and measure the impact of the programme as a whole.

Prioritising employee experience

Enabling leadership at all levels and the process of creating in-role CEOs is a development journey and collaborative process. Once the individual feels ready to fulfil this role, working as a team and providing support and guidance to one another is essential.

According to Gartner HR’s survey of HR leaders (November 2020), building critical skills and competencies is a number one priority for human resources leaders, as reported by 68% of chief human resources officers (CHROs). Furthermore, 31% of them report that employee experience is a priority. Millennials form an increasingly large proportion of the workforce, and we know too that this generation thrives upon development opportunities.

From a recruitment and retention perspective, therefore, as well as a training and development perspective, enabling and empowering leaders at all levels is no longer an option – it is a necessity.

Interested in this topic? Read Why your leadership development programme must include coaching.

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