We are entering a bold new age of empowerment. The idea of “leadership at all levels” has been on informal agendas for decades but has rarely been implemented properly. This is because proper execution is harder than just talking about it. The conditions and culture must be in place to make it a reality, underpinned by a strong, safe environment where anyone, regardless of level, can step up and contribute beyond a job description, becoming a leader at his or her level.
“Leaders at their level” are, in effect, in-role chief executive officers. They are individual contributors who have realized their potential and calling to do more and who have been empowered and supported by the organization to make that calling a reality.
As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we have a crucial role to play in unleashing leaders at all levels, because we support the growth of both the organization and the individual. So why should we have it at the top of our agenda for 2021 and beyond? The answer is clear: Modern business, ways of working, workforce evolution and the uncertain nature of the next decade demand it.
Currently, everyone must play his or her part to “go beyond” and contribute to short, medium and long-term business health. We can achieve this goal with a more collective and collaborative approach to strategic and operational leadership — an approach that also provides parallel benefits. A culture of leading at all levels is more attractive for potential employees; we know that professional development and growth are of fundamental importance to the millennial generation. Existing team members see that they can develop and grow horizontally (and be rewarded for it), as well as vertically through more traditional career pathing. It also extends the runway for more experienced employees and provides a flatter approach to cross-generational leadership and management.
Old styles of executive leadership — command and control management and the restriction of decision-making to the hands of the few — represent 20th–century attitudes and ways of working. A more enlightened age of leadership possibility and skills evolution, supported by appropriate digital technologies and tools, will drive leadership at all levels, bringing people closer together, even if working remotely or across borders.
This approach is the 21st–century way. It is more inclusive, diverse and, by definition, equitable, and it generates diversity of thinking and experimentation. It also increases speed and helps more people at more levels generate ideas, lead projects, innovate in their role and contribute to the broader health of the business. There are good examples of it happening already, with executive leaders, human resources (HR) and L&D aligned to support their in-role CEOs to do more and be more.
“Over-control destroys creativity and innovation,” Johanna Bolin Tingvall, global head of learning and development at Spotify, told me in an interview for my book “The Inner CEO: Unleashing Leaders at All Levels.” “At Spotify, we live in controlled chaos … it’s in the chaos that unexpected new, great things happen. That’s where innovation often comes from.”
Johanna captures something about the way innovation and leadership happen: It is not usually taught or trained. Rather, it happens in the space created by, as she puts it, controlled chaos. For example, Johanna describes Spotify’s “hack weeks” as “a recurring time when we empower everyone to work together and focus on what they want.” Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlists came out of one of these hack weeks, from an individual contributor with a bold, supported and sponsored original idea.
This individual contributor is a great example of an in-role CEO in action. In-role CEOs unleash their inner CEO, with support from the organization through repurposed line manager coaches and parallel learning and development tracks. These tracks are there both to support individuals’ skills for their official job role and to build the knowledge, skills and behaviors central to stepping up as an in-role CEO.
A Dual Approach
How can HR and L&D leaders support empowered innovation, creativity, leadership and performance at all levels? Executive leadership training is, by definition, exclusive. What organizations need is an inclusive, dual approach.
The Organizational Level
Organizations must create the conditions for the approach to be a success, which may include structural activity, like removing some management levels to allow for a more fluid, less bureaucratic system. In addition, it might include a reorientation of line management to foster great coaching and grow the business through growing its people. In the modern era of uncertainty, transformation, financial crises and a pandemic, managers have become super operators, problem–solvers and administrators. We are losing the art of pure management and, in particular, coaching.
The Individual Level
Have the roadmap and supporting L&D plan in place to support the journey from day 1. It sounds easy in practice but is surprisingly rare. By encouraging personal development, you are putting learning into the hands of individual learners. Enable them with digital tools and techniques, and support them with a stronger human touch.
5 Qualities of the in-role CEO
This dual approach, which combines strong organizational commitment and individual development planning, supports the essential dimensions and qualities of the in-role CEO:
In-role CEOs are empowered to lead and deliver in a way that excites them and enables them to take ownership. They must be adaptable, however, as they do not neglect their core role.
In-role CEOs are aligned to the values of the organization, as well as the positive values of equality, diversity and inclusion. A culture that encourages leading at all levels generates opportunities for employees with diverse perspectives and abilities, who may not be fully realizing their potential while working based on a standardized job description.
There are four key elements, or four Es that form an empowered leadership model: envision, engage, execute and excel. This model helps individual contributors assess their current status and encourages and enables managers to guide and track their leadership development.
4. Interpersonal Skills
Skills such as emotional intelligence, communication and collaboration are vital to leadership and a core element of the “engage” part of the empowered leadership model.
Contributing to team and organizational targets is part of the developmental journey of in-role CEOs. Measuring the return on experiences and investment is a constant part of the process from the beginning.
Stepping up as an in-role CEO is a collaborative process, not a competitive one. Individuals need to decide if it is the right time for them, and they will need guidance along the way. Supporting employees with a clear timeline for core activities, expected outputs and suitable points for development reviews gives them a solid foundation to become in-role CEOs. The timeline will be unique for each organization, but by owning the process you can bring in a bold age of empowerment.