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Procrastinating Executive Development

January 5, 2023

I’m a big believer in the growth mindset—the belief that everyone has the capacity to grow and develop new skills and behaviors. I also believe people should leverage their strengths as much as possible, and shore up their weaknesses so they don’t limit progress.

As we enter 2023, organizational and personal growth are top of mind for us all. I invite you to take advantage of the fresh start of a new year and intentionally review your skills, progress, and goals.

When I speak with CEOs, many express their intent to create a culture of learning and growth. They care about the people they work with and are usually pretty clear about the strengths and development gaps for the individuals on their teams.

At the same time, I work with a lot of executives who indicate a desire to focus on professional development, but don’t follow through with prioritization.

I see a couple primary reasons for this disparity.

Reason #1: They’re really busy. This is really just a given in an executive role, especially within a startup. Leaders are focused on their business goals—those they need to achieve to meet the needs of the team, the CEO and the organization. They prioritize short-term needs over longer-term development goals. Understandable, right?

Reason #2: They don’t realize how important their own development is. They think it’s a “nice-to-have.” And maybe sometimes it is! But often, by the time I’m working with an executive to help them find a coach or a mentor, it’s because their business or CEO needs something more from them in the coming quarters.

Let me share a couple of recent examples with you. A business is growing quickly and anticipates going public within the next two years. Their CFO doesn’t have public company experience, and isn’t great at speaking with investors. The CEO believes the CFO is capable of developing these vital skills, but will need to replace the CFO if she can’t fulfill the expanded role. It’s been nine months since they first asked for help, and the CFO hasn’t prioritized her own development. She’s now being replaced.

In another situation, a company is adding clients faster than their teams can add people. The current teams are restricted by an executive who is slow to hire or delegate, and doesn’t engage the team in finding solutions to the current overload. The CEO can see that better processes and collaboration would reduce the workload and allow for quicker hiring and onboarding of new team members. She’s been providing that feedback to the Head of Customer Success for six months, and nothing has changed. Again, the executive is a well-respected member of the team, but some of his actions are starting to negatively impact the company’s growth trajectory. He hasn’t found the bandwidth to engage in finding the right coach or mentor for himself.

So, what’s the solution? It’s not one-size-fits-all, but there are a couple of clear steps to identify why an executive isn’t prioritizing their development and give you clear data about whether there will be a long term fit.

Two steps we recommend:

Recommendation #1: Have an explicit conversation. The executive in question should fully understand that their success at the company is dependent on them growing with the company. If they can’t do that, you’ll need to hire someone above them or to replace them. The conversation must be crystal clear.

Recommendation #2: Make development part of the regular quarterly goals process, not a side goal that’s reviewed separately. Include success measures and tactics, in the same way you set your business and financial goals for the quarter. Then, measure against them to see if the right progress is being made.

The goal is to give the CXO the best chance of successfully developing the skills they need. You’re opting for a difficult conversation now, rather than a much harder conversation in the future.

Without taking concrete steps towards growth, it’s likely CEOs and executives will find themselves parting ways for preventable reasons.

When you take steps towards professional development within your team, the path forward becomes much clearer. If you still don’t see the necessary growth, making a change within the team will be easier, since you’ve already had transparent conversations and put strategies in place to help. On the other hand, successful results mean your team can continue making progress as a whole—congratulations!

My ask for all CEOs is this: give each of your executives the gift of feedback now, and hold each other accountable for continued growth and development to match the growth and development of your company.

-Cathy Hawley, January 5, 2023