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A CEO’s guide to leadership development

6 min read


The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” — Martina Navratilova

The biggest differentiator of companies that excel in leadership development is the commitment and ownership of the CEO or top executive.” — Dan McCarthy

Don’t you hate it when people quote themselves?

It’s easy for a “chicken” CEO to just pay lip service to leadership development. All they need to do is show up at the annual talent review and nod their heads; stop by a few training programs to give a quick talk, approve the training budget, and read the script written for them by HR that tells them to say, “People are our more important assets” at every employee gathering.

You can tell what’s really important to them by taking a look at their calendar to see where they spend their time, the agenda items on their executive team meetings, and by what gets measured.

So when it comes to leadership development, what’s the difference between a CEO that is just “involved” and one that is really committed?

Here are 10 things that I believe would give any CEO the best return on their time invested. The good news is that none of these involve spending much money, and they may already be doing many of them:

1. Focus on results and don’t let the process be the tail wagging the dog.

I’ve seen way too many organizations get caught up in the process and lose sight of the results. They create complicated processes and forms, thick binders, have long meetings, and put way too much importance on impressing their board of directors in their annual talent review. Once the meeting is over, the binder gets set aside and nothing happens until the next year. VPs and senior managers soon catch on that it’s nothing but an exercise and focus on looking good instead of being good.

This doesn’t mean the annual CEO and board reviews are not important — it’s been my experience that if you don’t do this, then nothing happens. Events, like annual check-ups, force things to happen that otherwise get pushed aside because they are not urgent.

2. Have high expectations for the head of HR.

The CEO’s HR partner not only needs to know all of the best practices and processes, but they have to have the ability to influence and be trusted by the executive team as well as be the CEO’s trusted adviser on talent. It’s a tough balance — they may be coaching a struggling VP one day and recommending to the CEO the same VP be replaced the next day. They have to be able to play match-maker and broker job changes, and manage all of the ego and politics involved.

3. Practice what you preach.

Committed CEOs publicly work on their own leadership development, then work on the development of their executive team. They coach them, give them feedback, and develop individual development plans with them. They support their development. A CEO’s behaviors are powerful — they set the expectations for the rest of the management team, creating a trickle-down effect of leadership development.

4. Know how executives really develop.

Think back on your career — where and how did you learn your most valuable leadership lessons? It was probably:

  • New jobs
  • Challenging assignments
  • From other people (good and bad bosses, a coach, mentors, etc.)
  • Courses, books, articles, and other means

Too many companies spend too much time on the last bullet point — it’s not only the least effective, it’s lazy. The top companies understand it’s all about learning through experience. When you think about it, it’s a sunk cost – you might as well leverage it. Don’t get me wrong — courses can be effective, when they are designed in ways that incorporate the other points.

5. Be the CTB (Chief Talent Broker)

While there are challenges to cross-functional movement of high potentials, somehow the companies best at leadership development figure out how to do it without damaging the business and ruining careers. They intentionally move their HIPOs — high potentials — from job to job to get them ready for bigger jobs.

If it’s left up to each manager, it won’t happen. Why should they? It’s certainly not in their best interests to give up their best talent. The CEO is the only one (other than the HR vice president) looking at leadership development from a what’s best for the company, long-range perspective. Managers won’t do it — or even see value in it — unless the CEO establishes it as an expectation and encourages them to give up their top talent and be willing to accept (and develop) unlikely developmental candidates.

6. Spend time assessing talent.

Assessing talent is all about having regular talent reviews, conducting formal assessments, and spending time with high-potentials. Know what to look for, too — indicators of success in larger roles isn’t the same as performance in a current role. Astute CEOs know how to ask the questions, what behaviors to look for, and the difference between performance (results) and leadership potential.

7. Hold others accountable for assessing and developing future leaders.

All too often companies will conduct talent reviews and succession plan reviews and discuss development and IDPs — then, a year later, nothing happens. A CEO needs to establish the vision, set meaningful goals, measure them, and hold people accountable. It takes time to change a culture, but a few public coronations and hangings help send the message that it’s important.

8. Stay involved in company leadership development programs.

Yes, CEOs should keep sponsoring those executive development programs and show up to speak — that’s a good start. However, committed CEOs don’t just show up at the beginning and end — they teach in programs, get to know participants and help set program objectives and measures.

9. Keep the board engaged.

The CEO’s board is involved in all of the other strategic aspects of the business — why not leadership development? Board members can be valuable sources of insight, advice and connections, and their support is important when it’s time to make key talent decisions.

10. Take decisive action on underperformers

Entrenched underperformers block the development and advancement of an organization’s high potentials.When I’ve conducted 9 box meetings, leadership teams often clam up when I try to engage them in this discussion. They don’t do a good job differentiating (everybody’s a B or A, and nobody’s a C), and they are too hesitant or slow to take action. I think, in general, most companies are too tolerant and slow to act.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.