Are You Overlooking Leadership Talent?


More than half of global companies define leaders not by their position on the organization chart, but by their influence and performance. Findings from the fourth annual “Global Leadership Development: Everybody’s Game” survey from AMA Enterprise also indicate that organizations need to consider broadening their approach to leadership development programs, in terms of who participates and in content.

AMA Enterprise, where the author works, partnered with the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Training magazine to evaluate a study of 1,174 senior-level business, human resource and management professionals from 37 industry sectors in 40 countries. The survey was conducted in January 2013.

The largest proportion of participants, nearly four in 10 (Figure 1), said their definition of a leader is anyone whose role allows him or her to influence a group, regardless of direct reporting relationships. According to another 14 percent, a leader is anyone, whether they manage others or not, who is a top-performer in their specific role. In all, 53 percent of respondents consider people to be leaders not according to their authority, but their impact.

In global terms, pace-setting companies now recognize that leaders can emerge from a far broader group than those at the top of the organization chart. Teamwork, collaboration and contribution to success played key roles in shaping this trend.

“With organizations flattening and workplace challenges being more complex and requiring significantly broader collaboration, everyone needs to be able to step up,” said Brad Federman, founder and president of Performancepoint LLC, a performance management and employee engagement company. “Organizations that align structure, development and strategy around contribution and leadership capability will outperform those that don’t. The bottom line is … leadership development now needs to be an inclusive effort.”

The study, designed to probe the outlook in high-performing organizations, found the broadened perspective of who is a leader is more prevalent (58 percent) than in the survey population overall. Similarly, an organization whose global leadership development program is rated most effective is also more likely to have a broadened understanding of leadership. Seventy percent of these respondents determine leaders by their role rather than the position they hold.

There are two fundamental implications for a broadening definition of leader. Companies need to redesign their processes for identifying leaders for developmental purposes, and they need to readdress the scope and content of training programs.

“The business benefits of developing a broader pool of leaders is very clear: not only do these organizations experience greater market performance, but also they are perceived as being more effective at developing leaders,” said Kevin Martin, chief research and marketing officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity. “The latter will surely help them become stronger magnets for quality talent as well as be more prepared to successfully execute their business strategies.”

Martin said these organizations seek to capitalize on the influence that exists throughout all levels — not just in the upper echelon — and this helps to generate higher levels of employee engagement.

Cate Jones, managing director of consulting services for global consulting firm BlessingWhite, said a title doesn’t make a leader; having followers does. She said if someone is effective at influencing others to get work done on a project or initiative, that individual is a leader. Further, she said many leaders who obtain their authority and influence the traditional way struggle with this concept of leadership — one centered on followers, not a title.

“Because many of them rose through a hierarchy, the skills that got them promoted are of little use in a matrixed organization,” she said. “Leadership is becoming non-hierarchical, relational and contextual. It isn’t something you do to people, but something you do with people. It’s a relationship between the leader and the led. Effective leadership depends on adapting to the context in which you are leading.”

The trend toward flatter organizations, with more matrixed relationships crossing traditional reporting lines, means more individuals will take on roles that require leadership skills. These leadership roles may develop while working with peers in other business units, lending expertise to a new geographic operation or when working on a short-term project. As organizations capitalize on the notion that leadership transcends traditional job titles, such as vice president or director, they will benefit from offering more employees opportunities to build global leadership skills.

The survey indicates one of the most critical elements of leadership development is determining to whom it should be offered. There is also a strong argument for opening up the process to allow for self-selection because those who request to do so are typically influential employees, if not managers.

High potentials are most often offered leadership development (Figure 2), closely followed by managers who have been identified as potential successors to the C-suite. It makes sense that these rising stars be afforded every opportunity to arm themselves with the knowledge and experience they will need to make a business impact on a global level. C-suite-level executives are also prime targets for global leadership development. But the study findings present some interesting insights for organizations that might be interested in broadening participation in global leadership development offerings.

For instance, high-performing organizations are increasingly targeting programs to any manager who expresses interest in global leadership development. This approach helps to uncover hidden gems: managers who have a penchant for broadening their knowledge and sharpening their leadership skills. A more inclusive practice also ties to a broader trend toward self-selection in identifying high-potential employees and creating project teams. This reflects an underlying trend to extend leadership development to those managers who have impact on, and followers within, the organization.

When discussing who should receive leadership development, succession planning is also relevant. Delivering leadership development to those who self-select — those with a passion to learn and grow in a global context — can broaden a succession pipeline talent pool with managers who have a global mindset. Another way to ensure the pipeline is well-stocked is to have all managers get leadership skills training.

On the other hand, one should not assume every manager wishes to enter the management succession pipeline, or that leadership development programs should accommodate those leaders who do not wish to do so. Leaders at all levels, both formal and informal, play an essential role in any organization’s success, thus what to do about them should be at the heart of all development and engagement efforts, said Pete Ambrozaitis, managing principal at executive recruitment company Korn/Ferry International. However, he said it’s impossible for all to be promoted into senior management positions, especially in today’s flatter organization.

“Moreover, most of these leaders among the ranks probably don’t want the senior title and the pressures that come with it,” he said. “What many do want, however, is to contribute in a meaningful way, to build their skills and extend their impact, and to mentor other employees. So they need to have their role recognized and validated, and not to be overlooked for development.”
The emerging leadership challenge is to capitalize on the vast capabilities found at all levels of the organization. For that reason, offering leadership development to anyone whose role provides an opportunity to influence others, in addition to those in specific job titles, may become not just a mainstream practice, but a future wave.

Jennifer Jones is a director at AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association offering advisory services and tailored learning programs. She can be reached at