The Depth of the Executive Bench

The Ultimate Measure Of A Learning Organization's Success

Jim Champy

Learning organizations can measure success in many ways: the number of people being trained; the acquisition of new skills; the alignment of development programs with a company’s direction and strategy; or maybe just an improvement in business results that can be linked to the acquisition of individual competencies.

But as a director and advisor to several companies and institutions, I see the depth of an enterprise’s executive bench as the ultimate measure of a learning organization's success.

Depth at the top not only signals the productivity of development programs, it also assures a succession of strong leaders. Without that succession, an enterprise will eventually fail.

Apple’s Success

I was reminded of the importance of leadership at the top when Tim Cooke, Apple’s CEO, spoke about succession at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting this summer. Cooke said that “passing the baton” was one of his most important roles.

Cooke’s comments led to a lot of speculation as to who might be his successor, with Bloomberg claiming Apple shareholders need not worry.

“The company has a deep bench of experienced managers who could fill Cook’s shoes when the time comes”, Bloomberg reported and then went on to name 10 executives at the top, several of whom might be considered as Cooke’s successor.

The question all learning organizations should be asking is how did Apple develop this depth of leadership strength? But before I answer that question, let’s take a critical look at the state of leadership development.

A Low ROI for Leadership Development Programs

What should worry all learning organizations is a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas.

The article describes a rich panoply of executive education programs and providers, yet reports that “organizations that collectively spend billions of dollars annually to train current and future executives are growing frustrated with the results.”

The authors conclude, from their own research and the research of others, “that more than 50% of senior leaders believe that their talent development efforts don’t adequately build critical skills and organizational capabilities.”

Moldoveanu and Narayandas suggest that Personal Learning Clouds (PLCs) could substantially improve the productivity of executive development programs by providing customized learning environments for aspiring executives.

I agree that PLCs can dramatically improve the learning potential for executives. But the most compelling observation Moldoveanu and Narayandas make is that “skills and capabilities developed don’t get applied on the job.” Development programs are, in fact, too “academic.”

So How Did Apple Succeed in Building a Deep Executive Bench?

It’s easy to imagine that Apple’s business momentum and growth provided many ideal opportunities for individual development and growth.

Moving people across businesses, processes and functions is a critical part of leadership development and provides the playing field for applying skills on the job, as Moldoveanu and Narayandas argue.

But having observed Apple and its culture for years, I can assure you that any aspiring Apple executive also had to learn the industry, its markets and the business–both from a technical and commercial perspective.

This is a step in leadership development that cannot just be taught; It must be learned through experience. Yet, I believe many learning organizations miss the importance of simply learning the business.

The Search for a CEO Will Tell You What a Development Program Must Produce

I've had the privilege of being engaged in the search and selection of several chief executives during my own career–and have participated in many processes that survey a company’s executive depth. These searches were in several different industries.

In one of those searches, the retiring Chief Executive advised me not to write a job description or list the job’s required skills. He said we would never find the perfect person who would have all of those “required skills”.

I've also learned in my own work that no one is ever fully prepared for an executive position. A person should still be developing as he or she assumes an executive role. There will be a lot to still experience.

So rather than creating a list of skills, we began that search by identifying the opportunities and challenges the enterprise and it's industry faced.

From that exercise, we could derive the qualities and character the CEO should have and apply that standard in the search. You can also apply that kind of thinking to test whether the development program of a learning organization is yielding people with the qualities and character required for the organization to thrive in its industry.

If you do this, you'll quickly see the only way to develop executive depth is to immerse candidates in the business and the industry. No academic program, even with the help of the cloud, will alone deliver the executive bench required to tackle the changes that every industry today is experiencing. The learning must be “on the job,” but some form of coaching will also be required.

A Baseline for Executive Qualities and Character

There is always risk in generalizing the qualities and character an executive must have. In the end, the qualities and character of an executive must fit the condition of a company. But there are two requirements I see repeated for almost all companies today.

First, an executive must have the ability to see across an industry to project the future and how his or her company must adapt or, better yet, lead. Understanding where technology can take an industry will be critical to this process.

The executive must then have the character and strength to make the required changes. Otherwise, the company will not survive and prosper. This is not just a “vision thing.” It’s about having a substantive understanding of how a company will be pulled into the future and the steps required to execute changes.

The second critical quality is the ability to identify the right people to put in the right jobs. No executive succeeds on his or her own. The farther you rise in an organization, the more important it is to be able to asses and judge others–but to be of a character to treat people justly and fairly in making those judgements.

There are three questions to keep asking to assess your development programs: are our people learning the business; do we trust the qualities and character of our executive bench to lead the change our company will experience; will we find our next CEO within our company.