Keys To Developing Organizational Leaders

This is part 5 of a 6-part series: ‘Excelling in a VUCA Environment Requires a Learning Mindset’. Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 6.

While the fourth article focused on the organization, this one will address individuals. We were interested in how CEOs ensure that employees and organizational leaders are developed to meet the demands of a dynamic environment. Bob Weidner, CEO of MSCI, the industrial metals trade organization, indicated—“thoughtful companies view their people as assets in which you must invest.”

Synchrony Financial’s CEO, Margaret Keane, summarized why employee development is so important in today’s business environment: “You cannot ignore the development of the employees, because they are the foundation of how things operate every day. In the environment we are in right now where change is happening at such an explosive pace, we have to make sure we are thinking through the skill sets of our employees to make sure they are going to be successful in their careers and that we have the right talent.”

Companies grow employee talent through both training and development. When employees are preparing to move into management positions, training is oriented toward job-related and leadership skills. Development occurs through stretch assignments and critical on-the-job experiences that broaden employees’ understanding of the organization and enhance competencies for higher-level leadership. Developmental opportunities begin by considering an employee’s readiness to grow, then combining challenging assignments with support (training, coaching and mentoring) so that employees derive the full benefits of the experience. CEOs who value development understand that meaningful work should be a catalyst for personal and professional growth within the context of creating high-performing organizations. The Army often talks about the fact that it is not made up of people—it is people–to emphasize the importance of people in all organizations. Gen. Dennis Reimer notes that “in working with organizations for over five decades, both military and civilian, it is clear to me that people are our most important asset. We must ensure we develop them and allow them to be all they can be to create high-performing organizations.”


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All the companies we studied have in-house employee training programs. Deloitte, for example, takes pride in Deloitte University, which uses case studies in small-group settings to prepare professionals for the complexity and ambiguity inherent in their business environment and to help clients solve their challenges. Mike Fucci described it this way:

“When you walk through the doors, you see a different setting. After you check in, your mind switches to learning mode. It’s very collaborative, a lot of group settings and multimedia interactivity. Not a lot of presentations. Groups of 6 to 8 to 20 can get together and solve problems, and we do a lot of case studies; we do a lot of hands-on learning. It’s a very immersive type of experience.”

MSCI’s CEO, Bob Weidner, sees his organization’s role as offering training and education for his client companies. He has established a graduate program—the Strategic Metals Management program (SMM) at Washington University in St. Louis—for industry leaders, and he sponsors conferences on emerging trends in the metals industry.

Pratt & Whitney has a comprehensive employee-training program that includes leadership training for managers at all levels within the company. All the other companies in our interview set also outsource to organizations like Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point, leadership training for senior leaders. In addition, Pratt & Whitney uses stretch assignments and cross-functional rotational programs to develop high-potential leaders for more senior positions. Bob Leduc believes much of his company’s leadership development philosophy revolves around modeling and reinforcement of positive behaviors until they become ingrained in employees’ DNA, as well as the importance of developing a culture based on trust and empowerment to ensure the successful delivery of business objectives.

On the training side, Synchrony Financial has 2-to-3-day functional academies for credit, finance and technology, for example. Margaret also has instituted a range of leader development programs such as the STEP Program, which prepares high-potential, non-exempt individuals for management positions.

“We have a lot of non-exempt employees, many in call centers, and the STEP Program is focused on helping them advance,” she explained. “This is a two-year rotational program using experiential learning and development to help them grow out of the non-exempt ranks into the exempt ranks and become managers of people; we’ve had real success with the program. The other positive is that there is a lot of our diversity in our non-exempt staff, so we’ve been able to pull people up through the organization and increase diversity in our ranks.

Synchrony makes extensive use of stretch assignments and critical experiences by moving “people with real talent, leadership and capabilities to different functions.” Margaret told the story of a finance professional who was moved to marketing. As a result, both the individual and the firm discovered he had real talent in that area. He was bold enough to say he wanted to try it (an indicator of developmental readiness) and the company was bold enough to let him try it. Margaret also is moving more tech people into other functional areas to both develop talent and meet the need for greater tech infusion throughout the company. This is a stellar example of a CEO matching organizational requirements for adaptability with individual employee development.

The CEOs with whom we spoke understand that their organizations’ ability to adapt to market disruptions would only be effective if their employees and leaders understand how they contribute to the company’s success and have the requisite skills and personal attributes to make it happen. We heard CEOs extol the virtues of empowering employees and leaders at all levels to act within their scope of responsibility to be able to add flexibility and responsiveness to their companies. Training and leader development, tailored to specific jobs and levels of responsibility, create the workforce that is allowing them to succeed in their VUCA environments.

Successful businesses create a culture of learning that fosters individual growth and corporate flexibility to respond to the dynamics of the marketplace. The final article in this series highlights the essential keys to excelling in a VUCA environment.

Click here for part 6 in the series.

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