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Four Keys for Developing Managers into Leaders

By Melissa J. Anderson

When managers are promoted to broader leadership roles, they can encounter several challenges that arise from moving from a subject matter expert or builder to a generalist or strategist. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael D. Watkins, cofounder of Genesis Advisors, a leadership development and onboarding consultancy, outlines the specific challenges that the shift from management to leadership entails.

Watkins writes, “…many rising stars trip when they shift from leading a function to leading an enterprise and for the first time taking responsibility for a P&L and oversight of executives across corporate functions. It truly is different at the top.”

As a manager, individuals are focused on the specifics, the nitty-gritty of achieving success in their own business line. When they move into broader roles, they have to be able to understand the intricacies of how other business lines come together for the company and leverage that complexity toward enterprise-wide success without getting mired in the details. It entails a whole new set of skills.

Watkins outlined the specific challenges that new leaders face, referring to them as “the seven seismic shifts.” He explained, “They must learn to move from specialist to generalist, analyst to integrator, tactician to strategist, bricklayer to architect, problem solver to agenda setter, warrior to diplomat, and supporting cast member to lead role.”

A number of the seismic shifts can be made easier through effective corporate leadership development programming. Here are four ways that Watkins suggests companies can better prepare their next generation of enterprise leaders.

1. Increase Mobility for High Potentials

First of all, Watkins says, a key challenge for new leaders is moving from specialist to generalist. Someone may have become an expert in his or her business line, but possess little understanding of how those divisions operate, or how they fit into the overall business.

“It would be wonderful if newly appointed enterprise leaders were world-class experts in all business functions, but of course they never are. In some instances they have gained experience by rotating through various functions or working on cross-functional projects, which certainly helps.”

To prepare managers for broader leadership, companies can work to ensure their high potentials have undertaken stints in a few other business functions.

2. Institute “Apprenticeships”

Another way to ensure that new leaders have the training to approach leadership broad is to provide stepping stone positions or projects in which they can observe and learn from leaders about how to integrate different business functions into a cohesive agenda. He writes:

“The skills required have less to do with analysis and more to do with understanding how to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for those decisions. Here, too, previous experience with cross-functional or new-product development teams would stand newly minted enterprise leaders in good stead, as would a previous apprenticeship as a chief of staff to a senior executive.”

By working under a senior executive, potential leaders can learn how to approach big picture challenges and create integrated solutions.

3. Seek Out Natural Strategists

Watkins says that at junior levels, individuals who are more tactical are more easily recognized as high potential than more strategic thinkers. But tactical individuals aren’t necessarily as well suited for big-picture leadership roles. He encourages companies to make note of high performing strategic individuals early on, and work to retain them. He explains:

“…employees with strategic talent may struggle at lower levels because they focus less on the details. Darwinian forces can winnow strategic thinkers out of the developmental pipeline too soon if companies don’t adopt explicit policies to identify and to some degree protect them in their early careers.”

4. Provide Formal OD Training

Finally, Watkins explains, most leaders do not receive formal training on organizational architecture: “the mechanics of organizational design, business process improvement, and transition management.” This can leave them ill suited to handle talent management challenges that will inevitably arise. He suggests, “But if their companies have invested in sending them to executive education programs that teach organizational change, they’ll be better prepared for this shift.” Formal education in this area can make the difference that propels a manager to a great organizational leader.

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