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How to Develop Leaders Today … and for Tomorrow

Mark Barnard

By Mark Barnard, CEO, SnapDragon Associates LLC

Conversations with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers reveal more companies than ever feel they are “talent starved,” lacking leaders ready to step in and replace those who retire or move on. This challenge gets even more complicated when you consider how much leadership style has evolved. What to do?

Based on what we’ve seen, it is critically important for companies to invest in high-potential employees earlier in those workers’ careers. Leaders need to understand that one of their key responsibilities is to position their company for the future.

As Hancock Lumber’s Kevin Hancock once told us regarding succession planning, "Part of being a great business leader in today's market depends heavily on developing others to lead."

Some companies have introduced management development programs to balance the employee's educational needs and the company’s future needs. For example, firms such as New South Construction Supply have introduced and seen benefits in developing a formal mentoring culture. Likewise, technology is also being used to create learning content that is more targeted to individual employees.

What Is Constant, What Has Evolved

Debatably, the basic qualities of impactful leaders have not really changed. We continue to need leaders who have eyesight to set clear goals, who can communicate that eyesight or vision in a motivating and simple-to-understand way, who work hard and are committed to the goals of the organization. We still need leaders who believe in integrity, honesty, and transparency.

What has changed is the business environment—and radically so. We've had to adapt how we lead in order to keep up with the increasingly competitive marketplace.

Teaching leadership skills increasingly earlier in an employee’s career mirrors how leadership has moved in the last 20 years from a dictatorial style and toward a more collaborative one, championing greater teamwork, productivity, innovation, and creativity. Today's leaders talk in terms of teamwork, collaboration, and inclusiveness; all words unused 20 years ago.

Those words were foreign then because the building products industry was operating in a relatively solid world, where change occurred at a much slower pace. The Internet had only been in play for four to five years, and remote working was not half the sensation it is now. In 2003, we were happily unaware of the financial crisis that was coming followed by pandemic that would change our everyday lives.

Different Style, Different Focus

Those earlier times also were an age of dictatorial leadership. Managers made all the decisions, with little input from employees. A leader’s job was to give people clear direction on what they needed to do, when to do it, and how to do it. The focus was on hard skills and getting tasks done.

With a straightforward career path the norm and people staying in jobs longer, succession planning was easy. Organizations knew exactly where the next leaders were coming from and the skills they would need to succeed.

Fast forward to today. With change a constant, adaptability is key. Work is no longer directed via orders from above but powered by team decision-making deep within the company. One hoped-for result is the innovation and creativity that is crucial for companies to develop a competitive advantage. And this emphasis on teamwork, productivity, and purpose to every aspect of our work also happens to be precisely what employees seek today.

Today's leaders are softer and more people-oriented than task-oriented. Today's leader rules with kindness and a more human approach. We can see this in the greater awareness of how employees' different personalities reflect how they respond to leadership. Leaders are more open to adapting their approach to get the best out of the individuals they lead. We are seeing hiring tools like personality profiling that clearly show the best ways to manage individual hires based on their specific behavioral preferences.

The COVID pandemic-forced requirement of technology has also brought new challenges that have triggered a change in how we lead. How many Building Products companies held Zoom meetings less than five years ago? The rise of remote working and decreased in-person meetings have shown the importance of leaders trusting people to work towards company goals without constant monitoring or guidance.

Empowering rather than handholding your employees is fundamental to 21st-century leadership.

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