With a huge chunk of the work force approaching retirement, along with volatile economic markets and increased global competition, identifying and supporting talented employees for future leadership roles is vital. Yet, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council, Washington, D.C., titled “Realizing the Full Potential of Rising Talent,” there are gaps in the flow of talent rising to corporate leadership. While a full three-quarters of those companies polled said grooming high-potential workers for eventual leadership is a top priority for both the CEO and the human resources department, 97 percent also said either minor or acute gaps in company leadership continue. Such a disparity is bound to have a negative impact on a company’s innovation capabilities, as well as its ability to attract and retain talent, its financial performance and customer relationships. 

“Senior human resources executives all over the world consistently state that there is a lack of talented leaders to fulfill their companies’ requirements, from handling growth and geographical expansion, to an aging work force and the changing demographics of customers,” said David Willis, managing director of the Corporate Executive Board, Washington, D.C.

According to Katy Sharon, director of consulting for Ninth House, a leadership development company in San Francisco, electrical contractors, as much as any other industry, need to build strong leaders who can support business growth, foster innovation, face changing market conditions and meet customers’ needs.

“With the many changes and challenges in technology in recent years, electrical contractors need to build strong leaders who are ready to continue to grow the industry,” she said. It is, after all, corporate leadership that sets the company’s course and moves it in a direction that will make it successful.

“Without leadership, an electrical contracting company could stop growing, lose customers and market share, or eventually become vulnerable to complete failure,” said Chris Bogan, president and CEO of Best Practices LLC, Chapel Hill, N.C.

The fact is managers and corporate leadership seldom fail because of technical issues. “Regardless of the size of the company or the industry in which it operates, most company failures derive from management not having the interpersonal and leadership skills required for success,” said William C. Byham, Ph.D., chairman and CEO of Development Dimensions International, Pittsburgh. And the more complex an organization becomes, the more important competent leaders are to it.

“Without capable leaders, no one knows in what direction the company is going or how to fulfill its goals,” said Morgan W. McCall Jr., professor of management and organization at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and author of “High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders.”

Effective leadership skills

To some degree, leadership is organization-specific, according to Willis.

“The factors that make a leader effective in one organization may not apply to another, although for an electrical contractor, leaders have to possess basic levels of technical competence to understand the industry and goals of the company,” he said.

The required leadership skills depend, Bogan said, on the industry, the size and maturity of the company, and the corporate culture. However, when examining the spectrum of leadership qualities, some characteristics that determine effectiveness remain consistent regardless of the size of the company or the industry it is in. These include honesty and integrity; the ability to develop and articulate a vision for the future; strong communication skills in at least three directions (up and down the management chain and laterally); strong critical and strategic skills; the ability to examine complex business problems and determine how to solve them; the ability to engage and work with a large diverse cross-section of people of different geographies, functions and cultures; dealing well with ambiguity and change; and caring about and investing deeply in the development of employees’ futures.

“Honesty and integrity is of paramount importance,” Willis said. “It is difficult to effectively lead without these characteristics.”

Leaders drive business results, Sharon said. “Effective leaders must be able to set the strategy and direction for the business, engage and maximize employee productivity and talent, operate efficiently and generate revenue,” she said.

Younger companies often require leaders who are able to focus on revenue growth and who possess technological expertise and an entrepreneurial or sales-oriented vision. “As a company gets larger, however, it needs leaders with the cost-management skills required to provide more structure and who delegate more, while very large companies require leaders with portfolio-management skills and the ability to look forward,” Bogan said.

Byham breaks down the basic leadership competencies required regardless of the type, size or age of the company into five categories: accurate self-insight into one’s strengths, development needs and one’s impact on other people; adaptability in effectively managing changing environments of competition, technology and the like; the ability to build organizational talent and create learning environments that ensure employees realize their highest potential; coaching for success and providing timely guidance and feedback to help employees excel and meet their key accountabilities; and empowering employees with a sense of ownership that encourages them to stretch beyond their current capabilities.

McCall defines leadership, however, not by competencies, but by the ability to meet the basic demands of business. “Leaders must be able to set and communicate a company’s direction, align the right people who are critical to meeting objectives, set and live values, be self-confident and comfortable with ambiguity, and be able to grow themselves and others,” he said.

Choosing future leaders

There are three qualities to look for when choosing people for advancement, according to Willis. First, the person should demonstrate, to some degree, the abilities and characteristics required to move up into a leadership role. Second, the person should be highly engaged in the organization and envision a future with the company. Last, they should aspire to expand their role and career growth.

“Too many organizations take for granted that all employees
have that kind of ambition and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices,” he said. Companies also should not presume that excellence in an employee’s skills in the present will translate into excellence in the skills required for higher leadership roles.

“It is destructive to promote people into managerial roles who possess the required technical skills, but who don’t display leadership abilities, engagement or aspiration,” Willis said.

Sharon agrees that technical knowledge and expertise often are critical for maintaining a competitive edge, innovation and meeting customers’ needs. However, with the complexity of business today and the need for leaders to constantly adapt to change, it no longer is feasible for leaders to focus solely on gaining technical expertise.

“The most important role of a leader is not technical but to communicate a compelling vision of the future of the business, inspire and motivate others to achieve results, and to develop talent,” she said.

It is smart, according to Bogan, to identify high-potential people early and to develop and test them. “Select people with experience who have delivered proven results and who have both the technical- and communication- and personnel-development skills appropriate to the corporate culture,” he said. The challenge is in choosing and developing leaders with the ability to adapt well to changes in company, industry and market conditions. In addition, said McCall, those people who are best suited for advancement will seek out feedback and be willing to add to their strengths and adapt as they move from being an individual contributor to a leader.

The formula accepted by most in the leadership development industry for training future leaders is 70 percent on-the-job training; 20 percent informal training in the form of feedback, coaching and mentoring; and 10 percent through formal, traditional classroom-based seminars, conferences, etc. On-the-job learning should include both improvements in technical excellence and improving the skills required for the next level of advancement. In addition, management must determine how it will get feedback from the employee and how it will provide coaching to him or her.

“And, of course, for effective leadership development, the company needs to be willing to invest time and money in the development of high-potential employees,” Willis said.

According to Sharon, the best leadership-development programs include training courses that build skills, provide assessments to help a leader understand his or her existing skill level and to pinpoint development needs, and assignments that enable the leader to put into practice key leadership skills. “Programs that include engaging online and interactive techniques, as well as classroom training, create a learning experience that leaders remember and put into practice,” she said.

Nothing, however, is a better substitute, Byham said, for actually leading others and handling crises. “Future leaders must be given the duties that will provide them with the repertoire of skills they need to succeed,” he said.

Electrical contracting firms have access to myriad leadership-development training programs, assessment tools, and coaches and consultants.

“Contractors can take advantage of studies and research from leadership-development consultants as well as expertise from associations and organizations that provide leadership guidance, support, and conferences, seminars and peer groups,” Bogan said.

Universities and business schools also offer executive education programs targeted at leadership development of those employees identified as having the potential to fulfill management positions. Whatever resources the contractor chooses, McCall said, “the company needs to ensure that the training or program provider has empirical, reliable data and that their services are practical and fit the company’s needs.”   EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.