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Key Insights from the Conference Board Leadership Development Conference

In its first and perhaps only year as a fully remote digital conference, the 2020 Conference Board Leadership Development Conference, themed “A New World, A New Face, A Different Lens,” was packed with insights from executives and talent leaders representing companies across the globe. 

2020 has shown us that the future will be characterized by challenges that are exponentially more complicated than anything leaders have faced in the past, challenges that were reflected in the speakers’ presentations.

When the Conference Board’s Program Director, Audrey McGuckin, asked the audience about the impact of the current business environment on leadership development, 54% of participants said that they are “finding new ways to strengthen leaders’ capabilities at all levels” and 32% that they were “redesigning practices and processes for developing leaders” within their organizations. 

The year 2020 was indisputably a year of significant transformation.

Transforming Culture

Culture emerged as a priority for most companies. Despite their different strategies and philosophies around it, companies such as Intel, New York Life, or Prudential view culture as the foundation for all other changes they have been implementing before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is culture so important? 

When Intel’s CLO and VP of Global Leadership Development, Noah Rabinovitz, joined the company a year ago, Intel’s leadership knew that the company needed to make drastic changes in order to stay competitive. Cultural transformation was the agreed-upon vehicle to achieve these changes. 

“It was hard work to dismantle the systems that were in place,” Rabinovitz said. “It helped that the CEO, board, and senior leadership were aligned — that it was a question of how versus if we needed to do this. If you are in a position where you are always asking for buy-in, it is a problem. You never get to do the actual work of change.”

The tech talent space is fast-paced, complex, highly competitive, and marked by constant churn and turnover. Intel identified several areas that were impeding their talent performance and retention: a trend in trust, competency gaps related to developing talent and driving engagement, lack of visibility into the supply and demand for skills development, and need to focus on the technical female population and minority leadership opportunities emerged as most pressing. 

Intel’s transformation began with rewiring four key subsystems that, combined, coalesced into a revised talent development system founded on 1) leadership role modeling, 2) performance feedback, 3) environment that consistently provides individuals with opportunities to innovate together, and 4) democratization of data in service of improved communication. As a result, Intel’s ALPS operating system provides a clear and simplified solution to identify leaders’ potential to be successful in adapting to Intel’s culture and the demands of clients and the marketplace. 

Leveraging Culture to Transform a Company 

At New York Life, culture has always been part of their DNA. Mike Molinaro, VP and CLO at New York Life, strongly believes that mutuality has been the foundation of the company’s strong culture. 

“You buy a product, you become an owner. Profit matters because of the people who own the company,” he said.  “The ongoing recognition that we will always be mutual plays a large part in perpetuating the culture.”

The result is a culture characterized by longevity, care, purpose, connection, and deep affiliation. New York Life’s leaders also believe that they are the exemplars of the company culture, which creates an environment where “The meaning of work is found in the light of the leader,” Molinaro said. 

When pandemic forced the company to transition from 4% to 40% remote workers and cancel its celebration plans for their 175th anniversary, New York Life’s culture empowered its leaders to quickly adapt. Molinaro and his team used a learning platform they launched in 2016 to quickly deploy a curated set of assets targeting technology skills, virtual leadership support, and a behavioral guide. As they adjust to this new normal way of working, leaders throughout the organization have leaned heavily on the platform as a tool to help them become more agile in the virtual environment.

While having culture embedded in the company’s DNA facilitates embodying that culture as an organization, the onus of cultural transformation is on the company’s leaders. Buy-in at the top, modeling, and reinforcement through leadership development solutions are essential. Are the leaders behaving in ways consistent with the cultural norms? Do they emphasize cultural guidelines in making hiring or succession planning decisions? How do they address deviations from the cultural norm? In order for a new organizational culture to take root, leaders need to internalize and “live out” the culture in their day-to-day decisions. Through the consistency in their behaviors and decisions, leaders show others in the organization that the cultural transformation is taking place and motivate, inspire, and drive them to internalize the new norms. 

Dynamic Leadership

Leadership in the 21st Century used to be defined in terms of specific, static behaviors believed to guarantee success. But, the prescriptive model of leadership behaviors failed to deliver when the world spiraled into chaos earlier this year. 

As posed by Columbia Business School Professor Dr. Hitendra Wadhwa, for every leadership behavior prescribed for a specific situation, there are myriad situations that require the exact opposite leadership behavior. The hyper-VUCA world of today demands a new approach to leadership, which acknowledges the dynamic tensions between the opposing dimensions of leadership competencies (i.e., execution vs. strategy, or relationships vs. performance). 

In many ways, 2020 has felt like a turbulent ocean. As captured in the video accompanying AIIR CEO Jonathan Kirschner’s presentation on dynamic leadership, the economic, social, and political disruption in 2020, surfaced the need for leaders who can “surf the wave” of change in a raging ocean. In other words, we need human-centered, purpose-driven, and high-impact dynamic leadership.

Dr. Hitendra Wadhwa posits that the breakthrough comes from moving to the “inner core.” He defines the inner core as a space within, where our highest purpose arises and from which we can operate in an egoless, centered, and present manner while maintaining the connection to our values and great purpose. In projecting 5 leadership “energies” — purpose, wisdom, love, growth, and self-realization — the 21st-Century leader leads from the core rather than executing on a set of robotic skills and behaviors. 

Driving Change Through Leadership Development

Stephanie Waite is a Director of Leadership & Organizational Development for Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Faced with the challenge of increasing engagement among the hospital’s nurse practitioners, Waite found herself asking how leadership development could drive change. Nurse engagement is a strong predictor of retention. By 2024, the industry is expecting a 16% growth in the need for skilled nurses. Yet, the data on engagement is alarming: only 32% of the workforce is engaged, 17.5% leave within the 1st year, and 33.5% leave by their 2nd year. With the engagement directly correlated to a healthy work environment, Waite set two success criteria for the leadership development intervention at Lurie Children’s hospital: a) empowering a highly engaged leadership team of nurse managers and b) highly engaged nurse population.

The results were impressive. After identifying six key areas where Lurie Children’s Hospital was falling short in comparison to the National Nursing Excellence average (e.g.,  autonomy, leadership access and responsiveness, or professional development), Waite and her team designed leadership development solutions around leadership competencies, skills, and concepts necessary to affect change in these areas. After identifying key departments, they developed a corresponding curriculum and launched a Leadership Engagement Academy. In an intervention centered around four 90-minute sessions, incorporating formative assessments, reflective practice, and application exercises, the leaders were able to create a community of practice for frontline nurse managers, foster directors’ communication and engagement, and directly impact four out of six key areas of development. 

Leadership Development at Cigna 

Driven by the mission to make a positive impact on people’s lives, Cigna boasts a 92% retention rate, including among millennial and Gen Z populations. As exemplified by career stories presented by Nick Wagner, an Organizational Development Consultant, and his colleague Maggie LaLima, HR Strategy Team, Cigna’s leadership development program was designed around a “whole person leadership” philosophy. Based on their individual preferences, business needs, and development needs, participants have the opportunity to participate in rotational development opportunities: cross-functional rotation, international assignment, or special projects. In the course of their time in the program, participants receive mentorship, skill, and career coaching, as well as leadership exposure, opportunities for personal development, and the ability to share in cohort experiences. After a successful completion of the rotational program, a graduate is well-positioned for a leadership role — they had the opportunity to build their credibility, lead with influence and demonstrate their new skills, as well as build a network with organizational stakeholders to promote their career growth.

A Year of Transformation

If there was one theme that could be extrapolated from the insightful and energizing presentations shared by this year’s participants, it seems to be transformation. Organizations across the US are in the process of reinventing their cultures and questioning assumptions underlying their leadership philosophies. We have experienced an exponentially greater level of ambiguity and uncertainty in 2020 than in years past, which demands clarity around our greater purpose and values and the ability to consistently operate from our “inner core” and to dynamically adapt to the rapid pace of change. Static leadership competencies are the artifacts of the past. Like a surfer amid a raging ocean, the 21st-Century leader will need to courageously “ride the wave” of change. A commitment to values-driven organizational culture, comprehensive “whole person” leadership development solutions, and dynamic leadership philosophy is the foundation of the transformation that is afoot.

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Patrycja Arundel
Latest posts by Patrycja Arundel (see all)
AIIR Consulting

AIIR Consulting is a global leadership development consultancy dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and performance of leaders and their organizations. Through the strategic integration of coaching and technology, AIIR Consulting brings agile leadership development to today’s connected leader.

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