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The Three Central Pillars of Leadership Development

Nupur Todi (Harvard Ed.M.), Leadership Development Consultant

When you do something long enough, you will eventually start seeing patterns in your work. In this chapter, I will share the story of my efforts as a leadership development consultant and learning-design expert, focusing on emerging patterns. I will emphasize in particular the best ways to re-envision the pillars of leadership development, with the aim of building up a competitive advantage for your business or team in the future.

Figure 1: Three Critical Pillars of Leadership Development

1. Rethinking Leadership Development Strategy 

An underlying theme in my recent conversations with CEOs and CHROs of organizations such as the Microsoft, Société Générale and Mahindra, among other global players, is their urgent need to strengthen the leadership abilities of their workforce and create a robust leadership pipeline. This is one of their top three priorities, yet only 33 percent of HR professionals in ASEAN feel that their organizations have an effective leadership strategy. A leadership development strategy, when effective, is “a well-crafted blueprint that ensures that companies have the right talent at the right cost and with the right capabilities to perform, for today and the future.” Companies with effective leadership development strategies report deeper leadership bench strength, stronger leaders at all levels, and higher business returns. 

So, let us explore some key components in an effective leadership development strategy: 

Context with Rigor

Only 10 percent of CEOs strongly believe that leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact. In my view, this is the result of weak linkages between business goals and leadership development strategy. Along with being embedded in the business context, leadership development must employ an analytical approach to assessing risks and predicting gaps in leadership that may impede the execution of business goals. Every organization has its own unique context, and this variation will only get more dynamic as we head into the future. To achieve success, therefore, each company’s leadership development strategy must be different, and managers must break down their particular business goals with data-driven analysis. 

One large Indian conglomerate, with thirteen different business verticals ranging from manufacturing cement and fertilizers to providing financial and telecommunication services, employs over 45,000 employees globally. They created strong links between a digital upskilling initiative and the context in which each of its businesses operates. As part of the company’s Global Learning team, I designed the learning initiative, building digital leadership skills for the business heads and their immediate teams. I partnered with The European School of Management and Technology in Germany to understand the digital maturity of each business, the role of digital work in changing the industry’s landscape, the business’s strategy and goals, and what its leaders were expected to do in their daily work. After an analysis of the current and future contexts of each business, we identified the most important gaps and then designed and led a six-month digital journey involving workshops, case studies, and real-time projects, through which the program participants sowed seeds of digital transformation in each of their  businesses. 

Skill-Based Strategy

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) claims that “85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.” So how can we know what kind of education or work experience will be needed for these unknown jobs? This uncertainty poses an interesting and important problem as organizations prepare their workforces for the future. Companies like Microsoft and CISCO have thrown away their old, cumbersome competency frameworks, as they were not designed for agility and big data. These frameworks made sense in the 1990s, when people needed to be trained for long-term, unchanging jobs. They focused on building up individual knowledge, skills, and behaviors in the context of a particular role. But skills, the ability to do something well, are transferable which helps to succeed in today’s trend of changing jobs. Given the importance of the gig economy in the future, I believe that it’s important to build a skill-based strategy aligned with your company’s business goals. 

One of the best practices I have come across is framing the problem as follows: “People are not having meaningful and impactful conversations with each other.” The company who articulated this problem remedied it by creating a coaching culture and equipping all of its managers with tools to be more effective. They launched an organization-wide initiative called “Conversations That Count,” which trained over 3,000 employees in two years. 

Local and Global

As Asia makes strides toward creating self-sufficient economies, it is becoming increasingly important to develop our own leaders for senior positions, rather than importing talent. Given the scale of our operations, the size of our market potential, our cultures, our complexity, and our diversity, we need leaders who can network locally and build deep roots in the region, in order for their organizations to stay competitive. To build sustainable leadership pipelines, multinational corporations should localize their leadership development strategies.

Customizing your global leadership development strategy is like packing a suitcase for an international vacation: the tools leaders will need depends upon their destination. A good strategy must consider regional cultural nuances, motivation, the needs of the people involved, and the possible influence of global movements and disruptions. 

On the other hand, the world is shrinking, and many domestic businesses interact with other players from around the world. This calls for all organizations to instill a global mindset in their employees, across all functions and hierarchies. 

According to an article in the McKinsey Quarterly, experience is responsible for 80 percent of learning on global mindset. While experiential learning is critical, global mindset also requires a structured and multi-faceted approach, with cross-country projects, rotation assignments, county-specific coaching short training sessions on cultural nuances and  cosmopolitan mindset required to succeed. Take Alibaba, China’s premier e-retailing and technology company. It encourages its employees to develop an “open mind” toward differences in cultures, perspectives, and ways of doing business as part of the company’s Global Talent Development Program. “When the time comes to expand, Alibaba can boast of a battle-ready core of leaders who are truly global in outlook, skills and temperament.” 

Scale with Technology

Usually, leadership development efforts focus on a few individuals, and these individuals usually come from senior management or to employees labeled as “talent” based on their potential performance. However, crises like the current pandemic have proven that not all people considered “talent” have emerged in shining armor to lead the way to a solution, and many people previously viewed as having little potential have revealed new and unexpected capabilities. Given these twin trends, organizations and managers will be wise to reconsider the definition “talent,” in order to democratize their leadership development efforts and ensure that all of their employees are operating at their full potential. 

American Express has built a culture on the basic premise that all humans have potential, and that everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Unlike some companies, they don’t consider individual potential only as a sum of past performance and future ability. They view it as a combination of multiple factors, including the employee’s fit for the role, the influence of the employee’s manager, and the environment in which the employee works. Crucially, in pursuing this vision they have leveraged technology to provide learning opportunities to all.

As we have all learned from the pandemic, there is no formula for predicting the year and month in which big changes will affect our lives. Similarly, there is no scientific formula for creating an effective leadership development strategy. But building a learning culture, equipping individuals to be adaptive, and toggling between best practices and best fit are all vital to organizational success. 


This article is part of a chapter in our latest publication Rethinking Asia 7 “The Future of Work: How to Prepare for It”. To learn more about how to prepare your organization for the future and build a future-ready workforce and leadership team, visit our Signature Program Page

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