Essential Steps to Becoming the Next-Generation Leader

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It’s happening, whether companies want it to or not: Baby boomers are leaving the workforce. The exodus will continue for some time, and in the process more and more millennials will step into leadership roles.

Companies are now focused on preparing millennials to lead. Deloitte reports companies spent $31 billion on leadership development programs in 2015, and spending on those types of programs increased by 10% the following year.

What does it take to be an executive leader?

With this new generation moving into unfamiliar territory, how can they be set up for success? There are multiple qualities that can be deemed general characteristics of leadership; qualities such as agility, creativity, ability to innovate, vision, self-management, strategy skills and communication skills. Consider these characteristics now at the executive leadership level.

Joel Brockner, a professor of business at Columbia Business School and an expert in organizational behavior, identifies three of the key areas of executive leadership as:

  1. Organizational Leadership – Providing direction and focus to the organization and its subunits.
  2. Interpersonal Leadership – The “people” side of leadership; effectively dealing with others either individually or collectively.
  3. Personal Leadership – The ability of people to manage themselves, e.g., not becoming derailed by negative emotional experiences.

How does one understand and embrace those previously mentioned general characteristics of leadership within this context?

As the former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

Executives aspiring to be strong leaders are following Roosevelt’s advice. Taking those steps toward a higher form of leadership can be difficult, especially for those who may not know what to do. They realize, however, that beginning the journey in itself is a success. That realization makes way for a significant opportunity to consider this question: what else can one bring to the leadership role?

At its foundation, that’s what executive leadership training and development is all about.

“Executive development gives leaders a unique opportunity to take time away from their work and personal lives to look at themselves as they actually are, delineate the kind of leader they aspire to be, and develop actionable plans to bring about alignment between the two,” Brockner says.

”This can make people feel uncomfortable,” Brockner continues.

“During our High Impact Leadership program, for example, we give people feedback about how they are perceived as leaders and managers. “It’s about confronting ways in which they’re not perfect, but more importantly, ways to become even more effective in their roles."

To do the latter, a leader should:

  1. Embrace their expertise, sharpen existing skills, and learn new skills to mentor, create, and anticipate;
  2. Better understand their business challenges;
  3. Bring their vision and combine it with new strategies, theories, research, and approaches.

One size does not fit all

Executives with leadership aspirations do not take the same form. As such, executive leadership development should be highly customized.

Brockner, who teaches three leadership programs at Columbia Business School Executive Education — High Impact Leadership, Leadership Essentials, and the Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals — says successful ones leave participants confident that “their issues, needs, and challenges were truly attended to.” His programs accomplish this through small group work, consulting sessions, and one-on-one coaching.

Another hallmark of successful programs: a mixture of lectures, discussions, and classroom time combined with the individual coaching sessions and exercises. This makes for, what Brockner calls, a very interactive mode of teaching and learning.

“Engagement is the secret sauce of Executive Education. And the way to get engagement is through instructional methods that actively involve participants.”

An element of future accountability

Leaving a successful executive leadership program means going back to the organization with an action plan for change, including an element of accountability.

“In some programs we ask all participants to write a letter to themselves on the last day, in which they describe what they plan to work on. We then mail this letter to them a few months after the program. For many people, this will be an affirmation of what they have been able to implement — or a wakeup call to get going.”

To put simply, successfully completing the program is not the end of the development journey. Learning, as it has always been, continues well after and into the future.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. For more information on Professor Brockner’s and other Executive Education programs taught at Columbia Business School, click here.