By Paul Slaggert, Director of Open Enrollment Programs, Kelley School of Business Executive Education, Indiana University

It is clear from the many articles I have read and conversations held with people in leadership roles that leaders have been tested over the last 16 months in ways they had never imagined.  Much has been written about the need for organizations to build capacity in their leaders and other employees.  The debate is around what those capabilities should or need to be – and where to start.

I do think that debate over what are the most important skills or capacities to develop in everyone working at the organization is a good one.  I suspect that there will be some set of common capabilities identified or agreed upon once the dust settles and the reviews and research of what happened during the pandemic are completed.  My concern, however, is that we can’t wait for this to happen.  The stakes and challenges are too high right now – in this moment.

Are You Prepared to Meet the Skills Gap?

I’ll give you an example I read recently from a survey that McKinsey completed prior to the pandemic.  They found this startling information:

‘We (McKinsey) find that 90 percent of companies believe they’re going to have some sort of meaningful skills gap over the coming years. But only 16 percent believe that they’re fully prepared to meet those skills gaps.

-Matthew Smith, McKinsey’s chief learning officer based in Paris.

If McKinsey found this to be true before the pandemic, how much more important is it now to start making progress on closing these gaps – and include some of the new capabilities and capacity that the pandemic has highlighted as critically important to succeed in this volatile and dynamic environment. (In my opinion, these include things such as resilience, adaptability, leading change, strategic foresight, etc.)

During a McKinsey Podcast entitled “Building a learning culture that drives business forward”, Mr. Smith postulated that there is an important signal in an organization that they are serious about learning and improving performance.  As is true with many leadership issues, it starts with the attitude and values of top leaders. Mr. Smith says:

“One of the critical elements is the conviction from a business-unit leader. Whether it’s the CEO or the leader of the business unit that is undergoing the transformation of how important capability building is to achieving the broader impact that the organization aspires.”

A Culture of Learning Starts with You

From my career as a professional who has helped train and develop organizational leaders, I would say – it starts with you!  You have to begin to develop yourself first.  Then, and I believe this is one of the most important responsibilities of someone in a leadership position, you have to train and develop the people who work for you.

I believe that the first step is to make sure that everyone knows that learning is important.  Kouzes and Posner, in their classic book “The Leadership Challenge,” identified five key categories they found in successful leaders.  The one of most importance to this article is Modeling the Way.  The first of two activities they include in this component of leadership is “Set the Example.”  How can you tell your employees that learning is important if you aren’t willing to learn yourself?

Next, a responsible leader creates and supports a culture that shows learning is important.  This includes doing things as simple as After Action Reviews upon the completion of a major project, providing technical skills training, sponsoring custom training opportunities for your staff. This last step does not require you to re-invent the wheel. Take the time to step outside the organization and leverage the talent and expertise that is available at a wide variety of leading providers of leadership education.

Prioritizing Leadership Development

Oftentimes, the overlooked component in this list is accessing leadership development opportunities outside your organization.  Most businesses focus on their core capabilities as a key strategic initiative.  You do the things you do best and outsource those key things that others do better.  This is also true of leadership development.  Another reason to take advantage of outside providers for leadership development is to expose yourself and your employees to new thoughts and ideas and to learn how other leaders and organizations are responding to the same or similar issues that face you and your organization.

Regarding carving out the time needed for learning, Mr. Smith says this about the keys to building a culture of learning to drive results:

“Number one, is there a culture or an expectation that people are actually going to take time out to learn? Because you do a lot of learning in the flow of your work. But you actually do sometimes need to step out of the flow and invest in taking a course or studying something on your own.”

The need to get away and actually think and reflect about what you are doing is an underappreciated, yet critical component of effective learning.

It is clear that organizations are faced with immense challenges and opportunities.  Those organizations that will succeed are the ones that are prepared (or are preparing) to meet and overcome the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.  In my mind, there is a short list of thing all leaders can do to help accomplish this:

  1. Develop yourself
  2. Create a learning culture
  3. Invest in the development the people who work for you
  4. Take advantage of key internal learning opportunities focused around organizational processes, technology, etc.
  5. Leverage outside experts/programs/resources to develop the leadership skills and capabilities needed to succeed in this volatile and complex environment
  6. Take the time to step away to learn

All of these will help you as a leader establish a culture of learning to address this critical skills gap. The results will be to significantly impact your organization’s ability to respond and succeed.  What leader doesn’t want to be involved in this? And remember, it all starts with you!

Paul Slaggert is Director of Open Enrollment Programs at Kelley School of Business Executive Education at Indiana University. He has nearly 40 years of experience at IU, Notre Dame, University of Cincinnati, and Boston College helping individuals develop their leadership skills and capabilities. He is one of two instructors in KSBEE’s short course Front Line Leadership. Paul has delivered this program for a wide range of organizations and for leaders at all levels of organizations.