To hear Cliff Sandsmark tell it, developing an effective leadership development program isn't rocket science. All one needs to do is follow a simple process. First, identify the right candidates. Second, assign them a mentor. Third, put appropriate controls in place to assist candidates and their mentors in determining development goals and tracking program progress. And fourth, provide candidates with the right curriculum to develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to succeed in higher positions.
And that's exactly the formula that Sandsmark, a senior human resources manager at transportation services company J.B. Hunt, followed when he developed "Forward Gear," an in-house leadership development program for high potentials within J.B. Hunt's transportation department.
How does Forward Gear work? The first step in the program, which debuted three years ago, is identifying high potentials. That responsibility, says Sandsmark, lies with transportation department managers, who must nominate candidates to participate in Forward Gear based on their assessment of each candidate's potential for advancement, current job performance and motivation to advance.
Once accepted into Forward Gear, candidates are then tasked with working in partnership with an assigned mentor or manager to create an individual development plan (IDP) that focuses on current strengths and developmental needs. Once a year, "if not more," says Sandsmark, participants and their mentors sit down together to re-evaluate the IDP and develop an action plan for the coming year.
Each IDP is individualized, says Sandsmark, but all IDPs typically include development activities ranging from cross training, job rotation and job shadowing to more structured learning activities such as face-to-face workshops and more than a dozen leadership-focused online training modules offered through J.B. Hunt On-Line University. "We try to keep the process as free, flexible and open as possible for candidates and their mentors so that managers and their reports can design the program to meet individual needs," says Sandsmark. "The basic message, though, is, 'Do what you want to do, but under the main structure of the program, you're expected to document what you are doing and put it into a formal, written plan that is reviewed by you and your report on a quarterly basis.' "
To that end, in addition to holding an annual IDP meeting, mentors and their mentees also meet on a quarterly basis to complete a "Forward Gear Candidate Worksheet"—a document that is designed to track and record each candidate's progress through the program, including information regarding training activities and programs completed.
Interested in designing—or refining —your own leadership development program? Here are some of J.B. Hunt's tips for doing it right:
Go low-tech. Even though J.B. Hunt boasts a fully functioning learning management system (LMS), Sandsmark decided against utilizing the LMS in any way for Forward Gear. Instead, he "avoided anything computer-related like the plague." The reason? "Managers are so busy that they tend to like spreadsheets and Web sites because they are quick to work with, but people can become too enamored with technology for technology's sake, and technology would have taken us away from the fundamental goal of the program, which is to encourage one-on-one interaction between mentors and candidates. I kept the program paper-based because I wanted participants and mentors to sit down together and take the time to actually write out goals and progress on a piece of paper."
Strike the right balance between control and flexibility. The danger of the Forward Gear program, admits Sandsmark, is that it can sometimes be too undefined. "Sometimes, managers want to be told exactly what to do and are looking for 'canned' process. What we are saying with this program, however, is, 'Do whatever you want to do, and here's some guidance on how to develop your employees.'"
Get management buy-in. It may be a well-worn phrase in the training biz, says Sandsmark, but nevertheless, make sure that you have management buy-in before creating a leadership development program. "You have to have their support and encouragement to make a program like this happen," he says. "Number one, they have to want it. And number two, they have to help you drive it. It’s the only way to get something like this done."
Allow for self-selection. In order for a candidate to gain acceptance into Forward Gear, a J.B. Hunt manager must nominate the employee to do so based on the manager's belief that the candidate possesses potential for advancement. That "potential," says Sandsmark, is based not only on how well the candidate performs his or her current job, but also on the degree of motivation to advance that the candidate possesses. Once in the Forward Gear program, he says, each candidate's true level of motivation "displays itself quickly. It's interesting to see how some take right too it and hunger for more and others don't see what’s in it for them and drop out of program. So, they self-identify pretty quickly."
Identify a program owner. Within J.B. Hunt, one individual is specifically assigned to work with mentors and offer help and support in guiding them through the mentoring process. This individual also helps to administer the program and follows up with managers on a regular basis to do regular check-ins on program process. He also reports back to HR regarding each candidate's "state of readiness," says Sandsmark —which is key to effective succession planning.
About J.B. Hunt
J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. is a transportation company headquartered in Lowell, Ark. In 2006, it placed 91st on Training magazine’s Top 100 list, an annual ranking of organizations that excel at human-capital development. To learn more about the Top 100, visit http://www.managesmarter.com/msg/resources/cp/top100_ranking.jsp.