Why (your lack of) leadership bench strength should keep you up at night.


Two thousand twenty was a year most CEOs would love to forget.  Most of us long for everything from consumer behavior to employee relations to get back to “normal.”  For better or worse, turning back the clock just is not an option. 

For all the volatility and unpredictability we faced during the pandemic and through ongoing social unrest in 2020, the mandate for the year was clear for most companies:  Adapt your way of doing business to keep customers and employees safe. Your survival depends on it.  A lucky few had the problem of how to manage rapid exponential demand.

The challenges of 2020 were real and transformative in ways that pushed most leaders to the edge of their capacity.  It was a litmus test for good leadership.  Some passed, others failed.  And so, if you are not already talking with your CHRO about current and future leadership bench strength, it is time to catch up because the most difficult test of leadership in recent memory is far from over.  In fact, the challenges of 2021 are even more complex.

For example, redeploying a workforce accustomed to working from home will not be as simple as flipping back to 2019 norms.  Hybrid models of how we work leave open many more options than we had in 2020.  The hybrid workforce presents considerable opportunity, but it also pushes leaders to lead through increased complexity.

No longer is the question “how do I keep employees safe and productive?”  The questions are now “what is safe?”  “Which employees actually need to be co-located? Do whole teams co-locate or can we treat each employee differently?”  “How do we manage data securely as employees move around the globe in a ‘work anywhere’ environment?”  “How do I monitor team and employee morale?” Managing a hybrid team is far more challenging than managing either a co-located or a remote team.

Committing to DEI in the workforce and supporting equity for your customers vaulted to the top of almost every company’s priority list in 2020.  In 2021 and beyond, it is not enough to acknowledge these challenges and commit to address them.  Real results in these areas are expected by employees, customers, shareholders, and board members.

So, if the gauntlet of leading is so much more difficult, how can you guide your leadership team to pass this more challenging test?   How do you make sure your leadership bench is strong enough? What can you do to make sure your story is one of success?

First, focus leaders on what matters most for your company to succeed. 

Your leadership model should fit your organization like a glove.  It should be driven by your strategy and can be used to shape your culture.  It is the hub of all talent strategy.  Take a hard look at the framework you use to guide leadership growth and evaluate leadership success at all levels.  Does your model point leaders to what matters most for company success?   Are key elements of the model missing or extraneous?

Every company should have a model of behaviors that align leaders with business strategy.

We know what it takes to lead well – the behaviors of effective leadership remain: 1) Focus on the core business and invest in initiatives that drive your key metrics, 2) Communicate progress so everyone knows when you are winning and what needs fixing, 3) Message a compelling vision for the future that aligns everyone toward shared goals, and last but not least, 4) Develop talent and support people so they bring their best selves to work every day in support of business goals.  Layered on top of these core areas should be a set of behaviors customized to your organization and your strategy.

Second, give leaders timely and actionable feedback from employees about their leadership.

Most leaders struggle to know exactly how well they are leading. It is just too difficult for leaders to get honest and clear feedback from employees.  The reality of remote and hybrid work modalities makes this worse.  The fact is most leaders operate in a feedback vacuum.  It is very challenging to read a room on a video call.

Very few employees will take the risk to share feedback openly, and when they do leaders are right to question its credibility.  And yet, feedback on leadership behavior (through the lens of your leadership model) is more important now than ever before.  When the test of leadership gets harder, leaders need more feedback they can use to course correct – and to recognize their successes.  One of the most remarkable insights we had in 2020 was how many leaders felt they were failing and how relieved they were (sometimes to the point of tears) when they heard strong positive anonymous feedback about their leadership.

Do not get caught in the trap of thinking leaders do not need to be “evaluated” when times get tough.  When the going gets tough, leaders need feedback more than ever.

Third, leaders need timely contextually relevant development.  

This moment in history is an incredible opportunity to level up your leadership team and upgrade your leadership bench strength.  More than ever before, leaders have an opportunity to prove their mettle.  But developing leadership is a contact sport.  This is not the time for leaders to learn abstract concepts in a classroom.  Reading about leadership is not the same as learning leadership on the front lines.  The best learning opportunities will come when we initiate leadership development that is active and tied directly to current circumstances.  Leaders learn most by reflecting on current events through challenging and supportive coaching or mentoring.

The best learning pushes leaders out of their comfort zone, and frames assignments in developmental terms, with expectations for after-action reviews to crystallize the learning.  After 12 to 18 months of this approach to executive education, you will know your leadership bench is far stronger because you will see the results on the job with direct benefits to the business.  Sure, there is a place for classroom learning, but if you want to see results in real-time with direct business impact get your top leaders one-on-one coaching and hold them accountable for using it well.


No one wants to relive the challenges of 2020.  However, it is a grave mistake to assume that getting past the pandemic and becoming more aware of race relations within your company will make things easier.  In many ways, they will be more difficult.  To face this challenge, every CEO and CHRO should together address these three core questions: 

1) Are we asking our leaders to focus on the right dimensions of leadership to achieve our strategy?

2) Do our leaders have clear and credible feedback about how they are doing?

3) Do our leadership learning tools link quickly and directly to business goals?

Written by Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.

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