The “3Cs” in Developing Leaders

by Ray Blunt

Often the question comes up, “So where do you begin in growing new leaders?” As people often say when put on the spot, “That is a really good question-I’m glad you asked.” So what’s the answer? Personally, I think Jim Collins gets it right (on another topic) when he says “first who then what.” I’ve come to a very deep belief that leaders grow leaders. If an organization is going to build a succession effort which includes a robust leader development approach, you begin by finding your best leaders and gathering them together for as long as they can stand it to think and plan how to grow the next generation. So then what?

The basic “what” is defining in clear and realistic terms what we want our future leaders to be like at their core, to behave like, to be able to do, and how their priorities should change as they move from individual contributor, to team leader or first level supervisor or senior leader. This is why you start with some of your best leaders because those are the people you want putting that picture together—a picture which should align very closely with where the organization is headed in the future—the strategic direction if you prefer. They will know that as well.

Many people have begun to refer to the “what” about future leaders as “the 3Cs”—competencies, character qualities, and chronos (or how leaders use their time). For example, the U.S. Forest Service has recently begun a four-tiered leadership development effort designed around just such a construct as has the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.

For our purposes, let’s start with the toughest one—not the toughest one to flesh out perhaps, but the toughest one to actually pull off every day. Chronos. In fact chronos is the very problem you create when you begin with the premise that leaders grow leaders—can these senior leaders make the time to do the thought work it requires to put together a good leader development effort? In my experience, the best leaders will do this and love it. But it comes at a price.

So why start with chronos when most people are concerned about competency and character? Well, in the experience of many, the show stopper in implementing leadership development turns out to be chronos—how leaders use their time, and particularly in one of their key responsibilities—growing other leaders. Here are a couple of issues you’re likely to need to resolve. It would be interesting to see how some folks have tackled these.

First, leader development efforts that produce the best leaders need senior leaders not only to plan the initiative, but also to take an active part as coaches, mentors, teachers, and, of course, as examples. And that takes the most precious resource any of us have as leaders—not budget dollars, but time. This requires a change in behavior and hence culture because most experienced leaders will say that the higher up they went, the more their time is occupied by meetings that “required” their presence and that the advent of e-mail and Blackberries has them on a non-stop information overload tether to their boss and their employees. This issue is precisely why the best leadership development programs identify 3Cs—because it is critical to success that time priority for leaders is blocked for just that purpose.1

Let’s face it (I know this one well, myself) it’s much easier to give someone a challenging assignment outside their comfort zone and throw them in the water—sink or swim—rather than taking the time to coach them beforehand with good questions and to post mortem the assignment afterward to see if leader learning took place. And, it’s OK to nod your head at the importance of mentoring, but another thing entirely to block time for a breakfast meeting, a lunch, or just a walk to talk about work and life with someone who can’t advance your career. And while we know that experienced leaders can teach the lessons of experience by the stories they tell informally at work (and also formally in the classroom), it’s another thing to take the leap to get up in front of a classroom and possibly be transparent about yourself as a leader who made mistakes in the past or who doesn’t know EVERYTHING.

In short, when we’re developing leaders, the culture change is that it is strategically important to the organization’s future that senior leaders spend a chunk of precious time developing those behind them at the cost of not advancing their career or the cost of missing a meeting or answering a few dozen e-mails. You can make a business case for this. But this kind of change takes a while to sink in at all levels. The best organizations actually expect this of their senior leaders.

A second issue around chronos is that most leadership development programs require the participants to be away from their real job for a period of time—to attend classes, to take part in action learning projects, to be on some form of rotational or temporary assignment, etc. The issue here is that many supervisors of the participants do not have the same level of understanding or commitment as the leaders who helped design the program. There is also a feeling of “ownership”—that the participants are assets of their organization and work priorities come first. Here is what people in the private sector and the public sector say is the basic sticking point—future leaders need to be seen by the entire organization as “corporate assets” not as personal property of a single branch or division or manager.

1. As an aside, that may possibly be why many agencies use leadership classes as the central feature of their development programs because it’s easier to find a consultant or a trainer to do this kind of work. What do you think?

Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past ten years he has served as a leadership consultant and teacher for the Council for Excellence in Government and the Federal Executive Institute as well as for several government and non-profit organizations. He spent 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He is B.J.’s husband of 41 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.

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