How to Navigate the Leadership Pipeline


MP Guru
Will there by a leadership shortage by 2015? Professor Rita McGrath blogged about a recent BusinessWeek article, which said that the number of qualified executives in the “right age bracket” will drop by 30 percent in the next six years as demands on talent grow and economic power redistributes to Asia. McGrath considers the issue from a strategic perspective, suggesting that the solution can be found in the way companies view their leadership pipeline, an idea made popular by writers Ram Charan and Peter Cairo. She writes:

The basic message is that you need to develop leaders in a bit of a sequence — it’s very hard for them to skip steps. And that means that your leaders in 5 to 10 years are highly likely to be somewhere in your pipeline today, unless you’re just going to admit defeat and hire from outside, which is both expensive and competitively often not successful (remember Bob Nardelli and Home Depot, anyone?).

What does this mean for MBA students and those starting out in their careers? McGrath says it's key to prepare for the two first passages in the pipeline. They are:

1. Engage in self-management
2. Become a manager of others

“The challenge of self-management is to go from doing what one is told and accomplishing others’ goals to doing work that addresses greater organizational priorities by being proactive and taking initiative in a positive way,” she says. “The chance to learn self-management can be undermined by an overly controlling supervisor or a situation in which very little leeway exists for independent initiative. In an ideal world, an MBA graduate or someone just starting out would avoid such situations. Topics we teach here at the business school, such as emotional intelligence and teamwork, are hugely helpful here. Self-awareness is vital to effectively moving to the next step.”

McGrath points out that the difficulty in making the transition from passage one to passage two is recognizing the difference between managing others and making individual contributions.

“Good managers of others are facilitators, rather than problem-solvers, supporters of others rather than heroic savers of the situation and coaches rather than worker bees,” she says. “It can be a hard transition because the shift is from doing work yourself to making sure work is getting done through others.”

“By the time graduates develop the skills for the next phase of the pipeline, which is being a ‘manager of managers,’ the work is almost purely focused on management and leadership. This is where the leadership pipeline for future development often breaks down — and where companies need to make substantial investments to make sure that their succession of talent is in place.”

Many of the courses offered through Columbia Business School’s Executive Education address blockages that often occur further along in the leadership pipeline; participants need to learn new skills that may not come easily to them on the job as they advance into senior and executive management. In particular, the Columbia Senior Executive Program (CSEP) helps with passage four to leadership autonomy; passage five to holistic leadership and eventually the final passage to visionary leadership

Photo credit: James Hill