The development of senior management is a priority of many corporate learning functions. Annella Heytens, vice president of human resources, Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China at Cisco Systems,  talks to Akankasha Dewan about crafting the best leader development strategies.

In a conversation about planning the future of any organisation’s functions, policies or structures, it is integral to take into consideration the capabilities and vision of its senior management. After all, any workforce, regardless of size, continuously looks up to this elite group of people to guide it through good times or bad.

It is therefore little surprise that corporate L&D strategies are now becoming increasingly targeted towards high-potential and senior leaders, and will continue to do so in the near future.

Getting the right visibility

But it is precisely the significant weight these leaders carry which puts added pressure on HR to craft compelling and effective leadership development policies for senior management.

“When you are at the management or leadership level, it’s not about being trained or developed, it’s about having the right visibility and exposure and networking,” says Annella Heytens, vice president of human resources for Cisco in Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China.

Heytens recounts her perspectives on  attending high-potential training course for senior level directors in the United States, which is a 12 week programme.

“The course enabled me with an opportunity to meet my peers all across the company. That’s when you realise this is the space I play in, and if I wish to move up to a different level, who the people are I will be eventually playing with.

“Having visibility into that is what is important, because at the end of the day, if you don’t have such visibility, you actually don’t know how your job is developing and what you’re stepping into.”

Enabling leaders with the visibility and exposure into where the organisation might be heading is an integral element to consider when planning L&D policies for such senior target audiences.

High-potential employees and senior leaders largely know what functional requirements their job entails, but it is often viewing the larger piece of the puzzle which is a skill yet to be fully developed.

“What you don’t know is the softer side of the job, which is how you connect the dots between the different functions, the different teams, the different sites, et cetera,” Heytens observes.

“That’s the piece which is really important. It is not so much the course, but rather being able to connect all the dots.”

High-potential training sessions, such as the one Heytens attended, are therefore helpful in exposing leaders to the visions and viewpoints of their colleagues and seniors.

Accommodating to change

Such sessions provide leaders of different functions the opportunity to get together and share their thoughts on the rapidly shifting business landscape on a common platform.

“Leaders have to understand the value of such programmes,” she explains. “Change is happening really quickly, and technologies are developing rapidly. In our space, within the technological industry, they are changing almost daily.

“So if you don’t have a focus on learning the new technology and what’s happening in the market, then you’re going to greatly miss out. If you don’t do anything to accelerate at the same pace as technology changes, then you’re just going to be behind.

Heytens says whether you do self-learning or through courses, it's important to put "double the amount of time" into learning about the changes around you.

"In fact, if we were able to train our employees as much as we wanted, they probably wouldn’t even have time to go out and sell or do their work because there’s so much going on."

And it's not just something faced in their industry, she says. This accelerated rate of change affects everyone, and to manage it the directive and example needs to come from the top.

“It always starts from the top, from the managers and the leaders to encourage and attend training.”

Leadership participation from all functions of the business becomes even more integral for such programmes when initiatives rolled out solely by HR generate lower interest among employees.

“HR is responsible for programme development and getting the pieces together so it functions like a process and a proper system, but at the end of the day, you have to have the business endorsement and manager accountability.

“You have to put up a change management plan whenever rolling out any programme, paying attention to the details, who’s responsible for monitoring and evaluating whether the programme is really doing what it is supposed to do.”

Getting the leaders involved

But getting such support and endorsement from senior leaders to participate and encourage learning is easier said than done.

Heytens recounts a situation where leaders themselves prevented their staff from attending training sessions.

“We have an initiative called Learning Day. It’s one whole day dedicated to learning, not just about technology, but learning in general. There is one specific topic assigned to this day - team-building, for example - and we get in external vendors to conduct the training,” she explains.

“Normally, an email goes out to all employees asking them to register for this event, and we did get everybody to register this time.

“However, during the day itself, there were a few slots which were empty and we found out that managers of our employees themselves told their staff not to attend the training because they had to do XYZ.”

To prevent this kind of situation, she suggests it could be necessary for some slightly more drastic measures to be put into place.

“What we did subsequently was that we started to penalise employees. If the employee registers and they don’t show up for those slots on the day of the event, then they [the department] get charged for it.

“Sometime you do have to take drastic measures if you wish to ensure that your programmes do get rolled out smoothly.

They also have a system whereby they notify the manager’s manager if their employees don’t attend training programmes.

“That way, there is some level of accountability,” she says.

Cisco’s talent management team also puts together a training calendar, which is updated regularly on the company’s website. This shows employees all the courses they are required to take in a quarter so they can plan their training schedules ahead of time.

Such a tactic is beneficial for senior leaders involved in multiple learning programmes across functions.

“There is still the functional learning which needs to be attended to,” she says. “There is so much going on within our spaces that we try to accommodate everything, as much as possible, through planning, through things like penalising, scheduling it all in advance, and sending managers emails.

“It is not easy when you have people doing two or three jobs and who are always doing more with less.”