Executive Development in Hard Times

If you are reading this, you are likely aware that Arkansas Business and I are offering a leadership development seminar in March. I try to be fastidious about not using this forum to sell services. But I am also preparing to speak at the Arkansas Society for Human Resource Management Conference in April on the importance of investing in a leadership culture. Besides, with everyone preparing for recession, this is a timely and critical topic. So I will risk flirting with shameless self-promotion this month.

Anyone who has been in business through tough times knows what happens. Budgets tighten and companies try to do more with fewer people. With markets unstable and the near future uncertain, why would anyone spend money on executive development – whether it is coaching, a university course, an off-site retreat or even a one-day seminar?

Some months ago I met with the CEO of a sizable trucking firm. I was there on the invitation of the COO and CFO. About 15 minutes in, the CEO looked up and in a gravelly voice said, “Wait a minute. We do not need that soft stuff. I hire good people and I pay them a lot of money. They know what they are doing.” Fair enough. But that same firm pays a lot of money for trucks. It buys the best it can get and only purchases equipment that is engineered for excellent performance. By his logic, no preventive maintenance is needed. No oil changes. No clutch adjustment. No tire rotations. Does this sound like an extreme point of view?

An executive team is an expensive asset. Its impact is far more than the cost of keeping the team members. It includes the opportunity cost and return on what the team can, or cannot, accomplish. The return on better communications, teamwork, efficiency and collaboration at the top resonates and amplifies at all levels, since the team’s actions impact all levels. Executive development work is what you do to keep yourself and your most leveraged assets working at peak performance – just like oil changes for trucks.

In their book “The Power of Full Engagement” (Simon and Schuster, 2003), Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr also dispel the myth that we do not need preventive maintenance. Their research showed that most executives operate at a fraction of their capacity. The issue is not one of knowledge or experience. Executive development work allows that executive to get better at bringing his own best work to the fore on a consistent basis. Much like athletic training, the idea is to build on already solid abilities and improve the way those skills are applied to the hundred moments of truth we face every day. And in tight markets with tougher competition, every one of those moments matter.

Loehr and Schwartz are also clear on one other important reality. Time away from the daily demands of execution is critical to the process of executive and team development. That means taking time from working in your business to working on your business.

I did a straw poll of marathoners posing this question: “If, as you were coming into the toughest part of the track (incline, wind, pavement, whatever), you realized that there was something that would prevent you from optimal performance, would you stop to correct (retie, remove pebble, etc.) or keep going? Everyone said the same thing: “If it affects my ability to run at my absolute peak, it must be addressed, immediately and efficiently.”

So while this might not be the quarter that the operating committee goes skydiving as a team-building effort, a structured event offsite that directly improves collaboration, or even a one-day high-impact leadership seminar, has plenty of ROI.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, February 11, 2008.