I see more and more companies investing in their future by focusing on the next generation of leaders, the up-and-comers who they expect to drive corporate growth in the years, even decades, ahead. These companies are adding more people to their corporate staff to build programs and experiences that grow hard and soft skills (you know, mid-level managers go away for a few days, several times a year, to learn how) as well as to create mentoring programs and to provide opportunities that allow future leaders to emerge.
But once they're trained to lead, do they have the opportunity to implement what they learned?
Often, the answer is no. They're not allowed to lead. Consider the irony. At the same time that I see so many firms spending all this time and money on training future leadership, I see too many of them pulling decision-making away from their managers—removing the need for these leaders actually to lead. The irony is painful to observe.
Workshop experiences and mentoring programs go only so far. If you want managers to make good decisions, the first step is to let them make decisions. And too many companies are going the other way—transferring decisions to corporate staffs such as HR or Legal, defaulting to various algorithms, or just replacing field decisions with standardized responses listed in a rule book.
This is a very dangerous pattern. Managers with prodigious potential and tons of training, but no decisions to make, atrophy. Not only do they not hone their decision-making abilities in the real world, they lose confidence in themselves and interest in the job. Those that don’t seek a better position elsewhere simply learn how to hide behind the cape of their corporate Superman or Superwoman.
Seeing these trends is why this New York Times article about Berkshire Hathaway caught my attention. Believe it or not, Berkshire Hathaway, the fifth-largest company in the US, has no general counsel and no human resources department. Wow! Their strategy is the exact opposite of what we see so many other places: they trust their leaders to make good decisions, they want them to feel responsible and accountable for their actions, and they want those decisions to keep getting better over time. One BH executive related the story how the Romans built strong decision-making and high accountability into their ranks and he cited it as part of what has inspired Berkshire Hathaway: “If you built a bridge, you stood under the arch when the scaffolding was removed.”
More than 30 years ago, Tom Peters, in his extraordinary bestseller In Search of Excellence, advised companies to keep decisions as close to the action as possible. That advice is just as good today as it was then, and it’s exactly what Berkshire Hathaway accomplishes by empowering its line managers to make decisions that other companies bottle up in remote staff departments. Has BH gone too far? Perhaps in some ways. But I’m convinced that companies will be stronger today, and will have much stronger leadership tomorrow, if they err in the direction of giving too much decision-making to line managers, not too little.
Three-day workshops have a valuable role to play in developing skills, but letting managers manage is the best leadership development program any company will ever have!