Innovation in senior executive development

Written by
Changeboard Team

09 Jul 2013

09 Jul 2013 • by Changeboard Team

C-suite potential

Two global heads of learning and leadership development, Kim Lafferty (GSK) and Paddy Coyne (Shell) were joined by nearly 100 business leaders to discuss the emergent practices in senior executive development.

Transition to general management, with its significant P&L and people responsibility, has always been a testing ground for C-suite potential. No surprise then that transition has become an incubator for many innovations in senior executive development. Even the term ‘general manager’ in multinationals is being transformed to reflect the present-day realities of a truly global leader.   

The topic is vast. However, three focal points of innovation clearly emerged in a 1.5-hour panel discussion with GSK’s Kim Lafferty and Shell’s Paddy Coyne: developing to future business needs, assessing for potential, and delivering a mindset shift. 

Developing to future business needs

Never before has senior executive development been so future-focused. Gone are the days when competence frameworks modelled on best performers were useful in future-proofing capabilities. The present-day winning behaviours are no guarantee for excellence in the ever-changing world. That means developing for complexity and unpredictability, as well as for the traditional forte of senior leaders – the ability to set and meet strategic objectives. 

At GSK, complexity and unpredictability is captured in the notion of engaging with paradox leadership. Emerging global leaders develop ability to benefit and grow from random events, errors and volatility in especially designed experimental labs – competitive edge assignments. The format is to identify and action a project that is expected to grow the business, or solve an important problem, or create an innovation. All of that is done with senior leadership support (and in some cases C-suite supervision), follow-on dissemination of learning, and investing in the best projects. 

The reality of mobilising organisations towards strategic objectives has changed too. In 2012, Shell moved away from its 9-element competence framework, which had been in use for nearly 15 years. It now builds its executive development around four leadership attributes, directly linked to Shell’s strategic priorities – authenticity, growth, collaboration, and performance. For the first time, authenticity has come forth with such prominence. Shell developers have observed many global leaders cohorts and concluded that traditional skills and behaviours may take an executive into the senior leadership tier. But authenticity, and with it the clarity of purpose, is a sign of C-suite potential. Similarly, GSK emphasises purpose, creating shared value and building trust in society as the foundations for GSK’s business and executive development. 

Both Shell and GSK have embraced the fact that the ‘all-rounded general manager’ is a thing of the past. Operating environments are so complex that even the most talented global leaders are no longer able to make the right call every time. Shared strategic thinking and decision-making are the new norm, where the power of matrix leadership and collaboration must be realised.

Assessing for potential

Identifying the highest potential leaders is no longer just about their technical and social expertise. For example, at Shell they look for evidence of:

  1. Purpose
  2. Curiosity
  3. Breadth of worldview
  4. Quality of relationships.

GSK adds to that list:

  1. Generosity
  2. Resourcefulness
  3. Compassion & humility.

All seven qualities are hallmarks of advanced levels of vertical development, a type of personality change that is relatively rare in adults, but one that enables leaders to achieve unprecedented personal, organisational, and social transformations. The challenge of assessing and enhancing vertical development is something that multinational corporates are increasingly turning their attention to. Shell and GSK show early examples of programmes that promote vertical development. Structured assessment of the developmental outcomes of such programmes is the next challenge facing business psychologists.

Delivering a mindset shift

Research suggests that only 5-10% of managers ever reach the level of vertical development currently targeted by GSK and Shell in their assessments for the highest leadership potential. Getting there requires a shift in values, beliefs, goals, and even more fundamental aspects of a leader’s personality. 

At GSK, the requisite mindset shift is achieved in a series of challenging, emotionally charged experiences that initiate a questioning of deeply-rooted assumptions. These interventions are complemented with prolonged follow-on activities that ‘anchor’ the newly emerged values, beliefs, and goals, as well as the resulting skills and behaviours that emerge on that new basis. Shell supports its global leaders to more powerfully access their authenticity. That happens in a structured and intense learning environment that exposes how they respond to challenging events, and helps them experience the impact of their acting authentically ‘on purpose’.

Whats next?

The panel raised many interesting questions that still need tackling. For example, what should be targeted in senior executive development if tomorrow’s skillset is so difficult to predict? How to assess senior executives for their level of vertical development? How to achieve a mindset shift requisite of each progressive senior role, and how to sustain it?

Experts at the London Business School Human Capital Network are already working on practical solutions to these and other questions based on the latest research and combined experience of our many corporate members.