How can businesses develop employees to create sustainable leadership?

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By Nick Greer

Have you ever considered how to develop a leadership strategy that lasts? If so, you are not alone, as this is one of the many challenges facing modern HR professionals as HR’s function within a business becomes more strategically aligned with the C-suite.

The role of HR has changed significantly over the past 20 years. As well as the traditional responsibilities, we now see HR working across businesses as a whole, both advising on people management and encouraging senior staff to play an active part in employee development.

As a result, there has been extensive research and debate surrounding the role of HR in developing leaders and leadership. In addition to helping employees acknowledge and develop their strengths, including leadership skills, HR might also have a role in helping individuals identify the right time to lead, and the right time to develop others as leaders.

A list of 2015’s ‘best companies for leadership’ identified firms such as General Electric, P&G and Deloitte as being among the high achievers for effective leadership across all levels. A key factor in their success is how they nurture talent: training employees three or more levels down from the chief executive. Developing leadership across multiple levels of a business is more beneficial than relying on one single figure – and it is a skill that can be incorporated into any business, irrespective of size or location.

Creating a culture of sustainable leadership

In a connected world, sustainable leadership can work at both a national and global level, with many of the principles that apply to a small-to-medium-sized enterprise also applying to a larger multinational corporation, albeit with some scalability factors. Already, there are numerous companies operating successfully at a global level, with management teams in different countries – but when it comes to workplace coaching, it pays to remember cultural differences.

Former Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, is often referenced as one of the greats of modern business leadership. According to Forbes magazine, Jobs would develop leaders from within his company by making employees believe in themselves, convincing them they could overcome challenges ahead. This is a great example of how a business can work to create a leadership framework.

In times of austerity, the talent-development budget has often been one of the first to be reduced due to the challenges in measuring its return on investment, especially in the short term. For this reason, HR professionals need to ensure that their understanding of their business’s needs is demonstrated in all work.

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When communicating with individuals at a senior level, it is important for HR professionals to speak a language that is acronym-free and understood by all members across the board, as well as being able to speak the languages of others throughout the business. This will help HR persuade businesses that their role sits at board level.

Credibility and involvement at this level will help HR sell ideas that can shape a culture of sustainable leadership.

Developing new leaders to move forward

Increasingly, there is a tendency for businesses to start viewing managers as coaches. Coaching is something that is often conducted externally, but there is an increased level of interest in organisations developing their managers from within. The traditional role of a manager is problem-solving – ‘your manager will fix it’ – but what happens if a manager is away or has other priorities? Does this mean the problem will not get solved?

One way to develop managers, and foster new leaders, is by encouraging them to hand issues back to their team, and work with individuals to help them solve problems. This approach authorises individuals to solve issues on their own, and empowers managers by freeing up their time from work that they can train others to do.

HR must demonstrate how initiatives such as in-house coaching can help to improve a business. Using examples that have worked successfully in other businesses will help engage management teams to move out of their comfort zone, and encourage them to get involved in identifying talent and coaching key people. This will move the business one step closer to achieving a sustainable leadership culture, proving that HR is a real business leader, too.

Nick Greer,  is the Director of Studies for the online MSc in Human Resource Management programme at the University of Liverpool ​

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