Developing business leaders

ROCK founder and CEO, Rob Dance, talks about his thoughts on building a strong 'bench' or leadership team to take organisations to the next level of growth and success.  

In just over ten years, Rob has built ROCK into a world-class technology consultancy with over 130 members of staff across the UK, servicing clients and partners all over the world. 

According to Gartner1, one of the top three priorities for HR leaders globally was the building of the current and future leadership bench within their organisations. In 2016, only 13% of organisations interviewed believed they had a strong leadership bench. This, coupled with the statistic that over half of organisations struggle to develop strong leaders, proves the difficulty of building future leaders. 

Rob talks about our successes in building leadership and the future of empowering the next generation of leaders to step forward.

I’ve noticed a trend in team sports in recent years: substitutes – long maligned as being present to simply make up the numbers – are now vital. This is particularly true in high-profile matches with equally high stakes. The 2014 World Cup final was decided when then 22-year-old Mario Gotze scored the game’s only goal with just seven minutes of extra time remaining. Gotze’s contribution, ultimately, was what separated Germany and Argentina that day.

I use this example not just because it was a substitute that scored what would prove to be the winning goal, but because Gotze had also replaced the vastly experienced German striker Miroslav Klose in the 88th minute of normal time.

Klose had, at that very same tournament, become both the World Cup and German football team’s top scorers. Gotze’s young shoulders bore considerable responsibility that day, but he rose to the challenge. Nurture your talent – train them, provide them with constructive feedback and, when necessary, encouragement – and they’ll do the same.

It is from team sports that the term ‘bench’ has been taken. It’s a word that we use frequently within ROCK to describe capability building within teams as well as the support networks present within them.

The ’weak-link’ fallacy

I regularly hear business owners and leaders say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I can understand why but, as popular as this saying is within the business community, I personally find it to be too reductive. Weaknesses are inevitable and, as a decision-maker, two of your key objectives are identifying and addressing them. Personally, I view things differently: in my eyes, however experienced and skilled an employee may be, there’s still certain to be room for improvement.

Weak links in a chain don’t concern me (within reason, of course) as they can be strengthened. A skilled and experienced person that felt like they had nothing more to learn – a link that was unwilling to be fortified – would worry me far more.

You can’t build a skilled and capable team, along with leaders, if people aren’t willing to improve themselves. I’ve strived to create recruitment procedures that identify candidates that are not only talented but also ambitious and eager to learn new things. I look for individuals that are mindful of the fact that there are gaps in their knowledge as they’re also aware of the fact that they need to improve and will embrace opportunities to learn as a result.

I’m also a proponent of secondments and employees working across various departments. Again, this might be a practice that would lead other decision-makers to cite their ‘weak link’ mantra in warning but I view this as short-sighted. In order to lead, you need to be aware of what happens throughout all business operations and doing is, as they say, learning.

So, whilst it may be tempting to focus on existing skills when recruiting, I’d strongly recommend that just as much – if not more – attention be given to a candidate’s ambition, their willingness to learn and their capacity for honest self-reflection. Such individuals are, ultimately, better at recognising and addressing their own shortcomings.

Why CPD investment matters

It’d be all too easy for me to simply state that providing staff with training will make them more productive, confident etc. but, thanks to numerous studies centred on employee training and development, I can rely on empirical evidence to exemplify its importance.

In 1997, the Society for Training and Development found that companies that invest in comprehensive training programmes enjoy 24% higher profit margins than those spending less on training.2

Providing employees with opportunities to develop also helps organisations retain talent. A study undertaken by human resources specialists Go2HR revealed that 40% of employees that receive inadequate training leave their positions within 12 months of them having been hired.3 A project commissioned by Middlesex University’s Institute for Work-Based Learning also revealed that 74% of 4,300 polled workers felt that a lack of development opportunities was preventing them from performing at optimum levels.4

Finally, working for a tech consultancy firm, I know all too well that a workforce in possession of digital skills is invaluable. I can also state with absolute certainty that, with the digitised practice now the norm throughout the majority of organisations, the need for employees with such abilities is only going to grow.

In 2016, professional learning experts Training Industry discovered that just 10% of employees felt they possessed the skills needed to utilise the digital resources their employers had made available to them.5 As a person that has to remain au fait with developing technologies, I’m mindful of how powerful new tech can be – of the incredible and thoroughly transformational effect it can have on business performance – provided employees are able to leverage it effectively.

Empowering tomorrow’s leaders

Refining recruitment, training and development are integral to the process of building leaders, but looking forward and determining your organisation and sector’s impending needs is equally important. Ensuring that an employee’s departure can be accommodated is vital to organisational resilience. Where senior staff – decision-makers, directors etc. – are concerned, the importance of such contingencies is amplified considerably.

Yes, the contractual notice periods such individuals must observe are typically longer than most employees but I know all-too-well that three, six or even 12 months is not enough to retrain a replacement ‘on-the-job’. Instead, adaptable and reflective high-performers need to be identified early. These individuals should be holistically immersed in a company’s operations as soon as possible and their learning and progress tracked continuously.

With this information, detailed ascension and succession roadmaps can be developed. These will not only facilitate leadership transitions that minimise disruptions but also aid the decision-making process when it becomes necessary to create new leadership roles.

To me, the right recruitment, training and ascent frameworks are key to forming, developing, retaining and improving a workforce that will engender continuous growth and success.

  1. How to Build Leadership Bench Strength (2019)
  2. Profiting from learning: do firms’ investments in education and training pay off? (1997)
  3. Employee training is worth the investment (2016)
  4. How investing in employee training benefits your business (2016)
  5. What the digital skills gap is secretly costing your organization and employees (2016)​​​


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