Executive Development: A Critical Lynchpin of Talent Management

By: Jessica Bigazzi Foster

If you suddenly discovered a hidden resource within your organization that delivered a significant competitive edge, wouldn’t you actively exploit it? Of course you would. And yet, high-potential executives are a talent treasure trove that often goes untapped. The key is a comprehensive program to identify and develop these individuals early so that potential turns into profit.

Most board members are increasingly aware of the significant risk posed by a lack of preparation for transitions in the C-suite. But in many cases awareness is not driving a consistent, systemic set of activities lower down in the organization that position the right talent in the right place to build a competitive leadership slate. How does your organization ensure that it is mitigating risk and leveraging talent on the upside to deliver against the business strategy?

Mention executive development, and most people immediately think of a process aimed at helping a mid- or senior-level manager cultivate skills needed for promotion. Many are surprised to learn that individual growth is actually only one of the overall benefits of a well-planned executive development program.

Rather than being triggered by any singular event in one person’s career, executive development should plug into a continuous monitoring of an organization’s overall leadership strength. Regular talent audits can confirm that key individuals are ready and capable to meet both current and future business requirements. By taking a proactive, holistic approach (customized to meet each company’s unique leadership needs), programs can be introduced that not only ensure the readiness of high-potential assets for future roles, but accelerate the performance of incumbents. Properly designed, an executive development program can determine how the entire talent pool of a business can contribute collectively to the organization’s long-term fiscal health.

Chief executive officers readily acknowledge that they need the right leaders in the right roles to deliver against the corporate strategy. The real purpose of a successful talent-management program is to help the CEO accomplish that goal. As you may imagine, that is a much more complex set of activities than the development of any one individual.

Having verified the CEO’s talent strategy, the first step in effecting a successful executive development program is to accurately identify the strategic talent priorities and leadership criteria that will take the business where it needs to go. In other words, defining what good leadership looks like for this company now and in the future.

Once this leadership profile is established, the role of RHR International is to provide exceptional data to drive in-depth, honest, and candid conversations that identify critical capability and experience gaps. Only then do we build and implement customized development experiences that move individuals from the current to the desired future state. As true partners with the talent leader, we provide insight and an outside viewpoint to help shape perspectives and drive informed business-relevant decisions. That kind of intimacy and feedback moves executives in the leadership pipeline forward as opposed to disconnected development conversations that are not aligned to an individual’s unique needs or the long-term realities of the business.

It might be useful at this point to break out the steps involved in an executive development program. To be successful, the entire process should be viewed as a continuous loop:

  • Define and adapt leadership imperatives that will drive the strategy
  • Determine talent priorities that link to the leadership imperatives
  • Collect objective data to create clarity on leadership capabilities
  • Use data to identify and evaluate internal talent
  • Align existing talent with critical priorities
  • Implement custom development experiences to close critical gaps
  • Identify strategic external hires to fill critical gaps
  • Evaluate progress of the pipeline towards future needs
  • Analyze evolving leadership needs given the business and market demands
  • Repeat

The organizational and individual components of the program are intertwined. Neither works or moves the process forward without the other.

With no executive development program in place, sudden departures in the executive ranks leave a business open to significant risk. The usual emergency plan is to initiate a search to quickly find someone who has the same general skills or experience. Lengthy delays may result as a candidate is found, vetted, interviewed, and approved. Another problem with this approach is that vital elements such as culture fit and carefully planned integration are often lost in the rush to fill the vacancy. Organizations often indicate they have someone in mind for the job, but they are not quite ready. The result is the same—lack of continuity in leadership and high disruption to the business.

Without the benefit of an objective and comprehensive talent audit, flawed data may drive the decision-making process. This is due to a lack of candid dialogue around three major points: 1) a realistic view of an individual’s ability to succeed at the next level; 2) honest dialogue around where leadership is willing to take risks on talent moves; and 3) the organizational, cultural, and historical barriers to good talent decisions. Unless there is clarity in the line of sight on these issues for all the stakeholders involved (executive team, board, human resources, etc.) and clear action steps followed in a continuous sequence, an organization’s executive development program is unlikely to be successful.

The effort, time commitment, and candor required to drive a consistent leadership pipeline at the top should not be underestimated. Organizations that create a program for the continuous monitoring of their overall executive health will gain a strong competitive advantage based on:

  • A strong cadre of leaders in key roles today
  • Talent aligned with the strategic imperatives
  • Clear understanding of the capabilities of critical talent
  • Mitigation of risk from transitions
  • Retention of talent at top levels
  • An executive bench capable of meeting current and future business needs


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