What happens when your leadership pipeline creates a leadership bottleneck?

Here’s the scenario: A new CEO takes the helm of your organization. She quickly sees that she’s got a problem on her hands. Before she got there, people in formal leadership positions were not trained properly before they moved into their roles, and now they are not particularly responsive to professional development. They’re getting the work done, but they have no vision or strategy, and they are generally complacent. They have the jobs they want and aren’t particularly interested in going anywhere.

So as not to repeat the mistakes of history, the CEO develops a robust leadership pipeline program. She wants to develop high performing and high potential people as leaders to challenge them, get them engaged, and when it’s time to move them into leadership positions, they can hit the ground running.

The leadership pipeline program is a success. Up-and-comers acquire excellent leadership skills and are chomping at the bit to put them into practice. The program is so effective, in fact, that it has instilled a sense of loyalty into the graduates. They don’t just want to be leaders. They want to be leaders for their organization.

Years go by. Several cohorts of this now prestigious program are in that pipeline. But there’s a problem. Those stagnant leaders already sitting in the formal leadership positions, aren’t going anywhere.

If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good.

The graduates of the leadership pipeline program have been patient—as they learned to be in the program—and they know that they should show empathy and respect to existing leadership, but as they wait, frustration inevitably sets in. It’s not so much their ambition that is making them frustrated. It’s the fact that they can see how to make things better, and they know they have the capability to implement, but they do not have a seat at the table.

Except for that top tier of formal leadership, people are developing professionally, but the organization is not. The whole situation is becoming a maddening.

So, what should the CEO do?

Two things:

  1. Transition those stagnant leaders out.
  2. Grow the organization.

If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good. You can’t let them stagnate. It’s not fair, logical, or wise. If there are people who can make a significant positive impact on the organization waiting to move into positions where they can actually take action, then they should either be promoted into positions where other people are failing, or new positions should be created to accommodate them.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a C-suite or VP position. That, obviously, would create a top-heavy and dysfunctional structure. It just means providing positions where they can help drive the strategy, effect change, and develop others.

Let’s suppose, though, that the new CEO says, “Well, we just don’t have the resources or ability to grow like that?”

If the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing.

My first inclination is to say, then get rid of the leadership pipeline. You are resigning the whole organization to stagnancy, so don’t go through the pretense of running a leadership pipeline program. But that’s not fair. It is still helping the organization because those people can still lead without being in formal leadership positions, and the people going through that program are developing, which is vitally important. But it is a massive failing on the part of the CEO to not capitalize on the talent she has.

Professional development, and leadership development in particular, is important because it pushes an organization to grow. And that’s the right direction for influencing change. Develop the people first so they can determine the best path forward, rather than top-down decisions that then require everyone else to develop reactively before the next arbitrary mandate for change comes down from the mountain.

However, if the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing. Plain and simple. It is a disheartening loss of potential, and those people who hold that potential should go somewhere else where they can actually apply it and be appreciated for their ability.

 

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