Are you skipping steps in your leadership development?

“I was surprised that I was surprised.” I have heard this comment many times from senior leaders tapped for the CEO position. They admit to feeling out of their depth in key skill areas, despite having been groomed and given world-class leadership training.

These leaders are not alone. Although many companies regard cultivation of their leadership pipelines as a top business priority, they often take an overly broad view, failing to focus on developing the specific skills and behaviors that matter most at any given level.

Individual executives make the same mistake, working hard to gain skills without identifying and building the ones they really need to make their next moves.

Match skills with roles

In their influential 2001 book “The Leadership Pipeline,” Ram Charan, Steve Drotter and Jim Noel identified six distinct, immutable leadership “passages” that individuals in any industry or geography undergo in their rise from front-line employee to enterprise CEO.

Individuals first progress from doing the core work of the business to leading front line performance. They then move on to leading managers of others; to leading business functions; to leading business units and bottom-line performance; to leading a portfolio of business units; and finally, to leading the entire enterprise.

Each of these passages requires distinct skills and practices. If you don’t develop them, you won’t perform as well in your current role or be as ready for the next level as you think you are — no matter how much high quality leadership training you’ve received.

And if you work on other skills besides the required ones, you’ll waste precious time and energy.

Differentiated training

At best, many companies distinguish in their leadership development between senior leaders, middle managers, and front line staff when offering training. That’s not good enough.

With a generation of baby boomers retiring, companies are struggling to find experienced managers and leaders. Despite the existence of active talent management programs, the demand for talented, ready-now leaders is outpacing organizations’ progress in recruiting and developing them. Training programs that fail to account for the six leadership passages exacerbate this challenge.

By leaving individuals ill prepared, they exert a hidden but significant drag on both talent development and enterprise performance.

If you’re a leader building a career, clarify what passage you currently occupy and what you need to excel. Know where you’re headed next and make sure you’re developing the key skills.

If you lead a company or its talent processes, build awareness among senior leaders and HR staff of the distinct requirements of each passage. Sharpen your assessment tools and design passage — and topic-specific clinics and development support for the most vulnerable parts of your leadership pipelines.

Leaping ahead to the next phase of your career is never easy, but you can make the transition smoother by obtaining specific skills.

Likewise, by making sure that all executives have more refined and relevant training, companies can ensure that they have the right people — with the right skills — at every level.


Steve Jacobs is a senior adviser at CLG Inc., a business management consultancy that advises executives on how to achieve new performance, culture change and lasting competitive advantage through the principles of applied behavioral science.