Lucky be the managers who are worried about succession these days. Most of us on this bullet train of an economy are scrambling to find people just to fill our seats, our needs, our demands.
But as world-renowned management guru Ram Charan argues in his new book, Leaders at all Levels: Deepening Your Talent Pool to Solve the Succession Crisis, workplaces globally need to be obsessed with what new hires can do five years down the road versus the here and now. Little of what Charan is saying is actually new: Human resources managers have long lectured that mentoring and grooming of talent is often abysmal, especially in growing companies.
But Charan, whom Fast Company magazine describes as “a knight errant of the 21st century...lives nowhere and goes everywhere, consulting for the largest and most powerful companies seven days a week, 365 days a year,” gives a name and form for his solution to the crisis in leadership: the Apprenticeship Model. In 157 pages, Charan outlines how companies can help their people grow and the immense responsibility managers have to identify leaders (no, not everyone can be a leader) and provide constant feedback, challenges and opportunities.
According to the book, citing a survey from consulting firm AT Kearney, almost half the companies with revenues above $500 million (about Rs1,975 crore) have no meaningful CEO succession plan. No wonder then that new leaders are left to face immense obstacles and new areas they have never been exposed to—and flounder.
Leaders at all Levels: Wiley, 192 pages, $27.95 (about Rs1,100).
Charan’s first chapter begins with the experience of Novartis AG and US affiliate’s CEO Alex Gorsky’s discovery that succession plans were uneven at the company across departments— even as the competition for talent intensified. He tapped human resources to devise a plan that encouraged different departments to gain exposure outside their functional area, and to start seeing attention to the various details of the entire company as key to the selection and development of leaders.
“Hitting financial targets and delivering business results would continue to be a necessary condition for promotion, but the ability to recognize patterns and shifts in the industry ahead of competition became important, as did the ability to command the details and translate those details into higher-level strategic thinking... Producing up and coming leaders who could help carry the company forward became an essential criterion,” Charan writes of Novartis. “Today the talent review process in Novartis Phamaceuticals in the US identifies the target job for an individual leader several years out.”
But how do you do that if an individual shows promise but just isn’t ready? Charan says the trick is to work backward, ask the question: “What would happen if we put the person in the job right now?” and work on ways to fill in gaps and minimize risks.
In Charan’s model, efforts rest immensely on senior managers, until eventually providing constant feedback becomes second nature; he advises observing and creating exposure to the right combination of business acumen (making and spending money) and social acumen (motivating people). The bosses who are best at this become the reason new hires covet working at certain companies.
The hallmark of Leaders at all Levels is presentation of ideas in a crystal-clear manner, making the right answer seem obvious through tangible case studies and human interactions. Consider Charan’s rendering of a presentation made in Shanghai by one executive as his boss watched. Afterward, the boss pulled the presenter aside, complimented him and then added, “You used per capita income expressed in local currency in your presentation, but it would have been better if you had used income in terms of purchasing power parity. That would change some of your projections about demand and call for more aggressive business of our business in China to seize the opportunity.” This illustrates that how and when feedback is delivered is as important as the actual message.
In the China case, it is instant and tangible—which way too often well-intentioned managers forget in their rambling attempts at feedback. Charan also provides examples of letters where leaders offer evaluations of short- and long-term performance. The best way to help a subordinate see the ways they need to improve might be to lead them to their own conclusions through pointed questions and delegation of decision making.
Finally, Charan encourages employees to take control of their own careers, even if their companies don’t embrace the ownership model. This point makes the book relevant to an Indian economy which is a hodgepodge of old and new, best and worst business practices. The bottom line is that the worker who focuses on learning and development will be rewarded with a match. Even the lucky, after all, have to earn it.