Building Depth by Building Breadth
It’s partly because they are so rare that “overnight success” stories of unicorn company founders attract so much media attention. And all that media attention inspires hordes of other young people who picture themselves on that next magazine cover. I congratulate the fractional percentage of them who make it!
The more common path to success involves developing expertise and gaining experience that increases their value to the organizations they serve.
Most executives cut their teeth on one business discipline or another. It may be marketing, sales, finance, or some aspect of operations, but their expertise runs deep in one or two areas. Rapid change in most fields these days doesn’t leave enough time for anyone to be an up-to-date expert in everything.
Fortunately, executive level leaders don’t need to be experts in every relevant discipline. But they can’t afford to be ignorant of them either. (see https://enlumenls.com/T-shaped…)
So how does an organization groom that up-and-coming accountant, HR professional, or marketing manager to have the cross-functional skills they’ll need to reach the C-Suite?
- Define Your Expectations – Identify key areas and levels of understanding you expect in each discipline at each level of the organization. For example, document that every VP should know how to read an income statement and balance sheet. They should be capable of spotting anomalies and comfortable asking questions about them. Perhaps you want every department manager – even if they’re in IT or HR or Finance – to be familiar with the organization’s marketing strategy. Whatever standards you have for each level of management, make sure everyone knows what they are.
- Create Opportunities – Ask employees what interests they have outside their own discipline and sponsor their development in those areas. That might mean taking a class or seminar.
Internal cross-functional internships or job sharing are another way to build skills as well as relationships that breakdown organizational silos. Have you seen the TV show, Undercover Boss? Letting your up-and-comers or senior leaders spend a few hours on an assembly line or doing other “menial” tasks they aren’t skilled at will enrich their understanding of the organization. It will also provide a healthy dose of empathy and humility.
One company I worked for had quarterly brown-bag lunches for interested employees to engage with an executive around the company’s current financial statements. A similar approach would enrich understanding of other aspects of the organization. It would simultaneously expose who in the organization is interested.
Developing bench depth provides rich benefits. It develops potential successors to key positions. It equips lower-level managers to make more and better decisions. It provides another set of eyes to identify cross-functional opportunities. It generates loyalty since people who are growing are more satisfied in their jobs. If done well, it can foster cross-functional teamwork and spur innovation.
I often say that managers are responsible for the success of their organization and leaders are responsible for the success of their people. Someone who intentionally builds bench depth is being a good manager and a good leader.
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