The Organization as a Leader Development Academy

The Organization as a Leader Development Academy

Article by Tom Rozman 

Many readers have had the experience–one enters a military organization as a function of the personnel replacement system or a civilian organization subsequent to a hiring process or possible promotion in the organization and may or may not receive an orientation relative to the job and its duties and requirements.  Sometimes one is off and running, or not, with nothing more than the job description.

The good news, in most organizations, one’s new supervisor will take some time to in-brief and orient and there is usually some form of organizational orientation. Nevertheless, there are still more than a few situations where very little orientation is provided.  Typically, when an organization is sloppy or deficient in orienting new leaders, that organization is woefully deficient in the later sustained development of that leader as an operational and long term asset.

To reinforce this point, in the business of leader development for someone in supervisory roles, aside from any earlier individual experiential or developmental experiences, the new organization may provide little to no deliberate or systematic development over a career in that part of the organization to which one is assigned.  In many cases one may find one’s self in a “sink or swim” situation, with any negative consequences of this failure to develop the leader affecting not only the now practicing leader, but those whom the leader leads.  True, in the absence of any organizational approach to leader development, there is that rare and enlightened and talented supervisor who has an intuitive sense of responsibility to develop subordinate leaders.  Such a leader is always in the process of mentoring and actively working individual leader development strategies for their subordinate leaders from available resources.

In fairness, available fiscal resources when constrained may create a sense of funding not being available to support any deliberate programs—many in leadership when funds become severely constrained seem imagination crippled as if the fund constraint killed their creativity to innovate and think out of the box.  As well, the mission or work tempo may be so demanding that all in the leadership chain are fully absorbed by it with little time or energy for anything but servicing the work.

Yet, especially in the latter types of environments, effective leadership is vital to organizational success and retention of the most able and capable employees.  And even in these heavy load environments, a skilled and experienced leader does have time and opportunity to pay attention to subordinate leader development—after all, if an organization cannot raise its following generation of effective leaders who intimately know the business and mission, it will be deeply challenged in any effective continuity capability and potentially runs the risk of strategic failure.  In other words, it runs the risk of going out of business.

Too often, the existing leadership only perceives the organization as a construct to produce work output and not a collective organism that may involve multiple function capability.  Obviously, the primary mission or business task must be performed and performed effectively producing whatever product assures profitability or mission completion.  But the standing organization may have other functional capabilities if leadership is cognizant they exist and determines to take advantage of them.  Some may produce synergies that will greatly benefit the collective organization on several levels such as enhanced mission accomplishment, staff capability enhancement, staff retention and committed staff dedication to high quality mission achievement.

The case of internal leader development capability in any standing organization is perhaps one of the most significant of these organizational functional capabilities.  If leaders comprehend that not only is their organization an operational entity designed and purpose built to produce mission results but that it is also a “practical leadership development academy,” they will orient on smart systems and methods of ongoing leader development that take full advantage of the ongoing operations of the organization as the basis for such leader development.

While the above may sound like a blinding flash of the obvious, it nevertheless seldom functions deliberately in most organizations.  Consequently, the array of e-mail communications, task discussions, individual meetings, counselings, office calls, mentoring sessions, staff meetings, training sessions, site accompany experiences, recognition events, occasional office social events and other supervisor/subordinate interfaces may not be perceived as a form of ongoing leadership academy that may or may not be augmented with self-study or off site schools and courses all producing an increasingly capable levy of experienced subordinate following leaders that will not only meet mission needs for leadership but may be relied upon to provide future leaders as more senior leaders leave the organization.

Whether cognizant or not of the construct, any organization from small to large has a leader development academy.  When cognizance is absent the academy is fallow or inactive.  The academy has three parts.  For purposes of this discussion, the following three elements (other terms might be used) compose that active or inactive academy.

  • School House
  • Organization
  • Self-development

In the most constrained environments, the academy may function only in the organization element or organization and self-development elements.  However, few organizations today are able to completely leave out some use of the school house element. The latter becomes a necessity when some highly technical topic, subject or skill is required of an employee or leader that cannot be economically or feasibly instructed, trained or otherwise handled within existing organizational capabilities although this limitation, even for small organizations, has been greatly affected in terms of accessibility through technology and developments in distance learning, web based programs and interactive virtual simulation and gaming formats.

In fact, using an apprenticeship model that organizes the “work process” and all of its activities and parts as part of the deliberate leader development program and organizing and supporting the “related instruction” component with the effective web based programs, an viable internal leader development program that bases on the employed leaders ongoing operational activity during a fiscal year may be developed—literally a program occurring parallel to the regular function of that leader in ongoing operations.  Objective and goal setting definition may be tailored as considered necessary by the organization and may be “substantial” or “minimal” based on the determination of “necessary.”

As the bulletized academy model above indicates, and applying the “apprenticeship construct” and ever evolving web based and interactive virtual simulation capabilities, any development felt necessary beyond the experiential provided by ongoing operations may be handled by the school house/self-development components using the array of existing and emerging web based capabilities.  The latter, combined with skilled senior leaders adept at developing and mentoring subordinate leaders in the experiential environment will produce increasingly effective junior leaders internally.  These developing junior leaders will constitute a cadre of increasingly experienced leaders that will be able to assume more senior leadership vacancies as they occur with high degrees of competence as already seasoned leaders.

Such internal organizational “leadership development academies” are not new and have been successfully operated by many organizations for a very long time, especially where vision and cognizance of organizational capabilities to pursue such initiatives are present.  Such systems have always been attractive to smaller fiscally constrained organizations and larger organizations for security, operational or proprietary reasons.

The above said, however, too many organizations fail to form such deliberate leader development systems in house and “piggy backed” off ongoing operations.  This is an odd situation in an age where effective leadership for operations is ever more critical to organizational success and sustainment and the means, through ever more powerful technologies and training and development capabilities, exist to implement powerful ongoing leader development capabilities within any operating organization “piggy backed” off of the organization’s operations—a heavily experienced based approach to leader development.

The development of such an internal organizational leader development academy does not exclude the use of formal external programs deemed appropriate by the organization.  Examples might be university provided MBA or other formal leader development programs though many of these programs are increasingly achieving the ability to be integrated into the construction discussed above.

This short discussion does highlight the inexcusability of any modern organization today, small to large, not having an internal “leader development academy” in operation.  This is especially true given the array of resources available and their affordability, though the most essential resource for a successful program will be the senior leaders of the organization.  Their competence or lack thereof to serve as effective junior leader developers will determine the effectiveness of any organizational leader development even if farmed out to external high end stand alone programs at for example a college or university.

From the above discussion, internal and affordable leadership development that is effective and tailored to organization needs that is experience based is feasible and possible to any organization.  It is a proven vehicle for effective leader development.  As well, we are in an age where organizations that fail to use such a means to develop their leaders may be indicating deeper and more serious deficiencies in their effectiveness.