The great majority of the public transportation CEOs I’ve worked with over the years have been conscientious self-improvers – devouring articles and books on leadership and executive management, seeking out educational opportunities at APTA conferences, and learning from colleagues’ experiences. And the professional growth aficionados I’ve come across in my work who are really board-savvy have made sure that their professional growth targets and strategies are factored into board evaluation of their performance. For example, in a recent meeting I was sitting in on, the governance committee of a public transit board reached agreement with the GM on a list of “CEO-specific” performance targets that would be used at the end of the year to evaluate the GM’s performance. The last two targets related to the GM’s professional growth: enrolling in an on-line course on recent developments in the field of organizational change and retaining a coach to help beef up executive team building skills.
What has struck me over the years is how often CEOs, notwithstanding their devotion to continuous self-improvement, take a pretty catch-as-catch-can approach to strengthening their CEO leadership capacity, pursuing targets that happen to be on their mind at the time, rather than taking a more rigorous approach. This is a classic case of missed opportunity, so I’d like to suggest an approach based on recent developments in the field of organizational innovation and change that I call the “Professional Growth Portfolio Process.” Though you might think that’s a pretty highfalutin title, the process is actually pretty simple and easily carried out, although it does require a strong commitment to growth and a large dollop of self-discipline. In a nutshell, the self-improving CEOs I’ve seen apply the process:
- Start by self-diagnosing serious professional growth issues in the form of both barriers to overcome and opportunities to capitalize on in strengthening their CEO leadership. For example, one CEO I was coaching identified lack of comfort and dynamism at the podium as a serious leadership barrier, and another the opportunity to learn about – and capitalize on – recent dramatic advances in the field of change management.
- Then identify two to three really high-stakes issues for attention in the near-term and flesh out a “professional growth initiative” for each of the selected issues: essentially a very straightforward action strategy. For example, the CEO who decided she needed to strengthen her public speaking skills included in her initiative retaining a speaking coach, devoting an hour weekly to working with the coach over a period of two months, and carefully selecting speaking opportunities to test her skills, among other steps.
- Finally, manage the professional growth initiatives in a formal Professional Growth Portfolio in order to avoid having the initiatives buried under an avalanche of day-to-day demands and crises. Many CEOs I’ve worked with set aside a couple of hours every Saturday or Sunday to assess the status of the initiatives currently in the portfolio and make tweaks as necessary.
Experience has taught me that this very simple approach to individual professional growth works really well if the CEO takes it seriously and makes sure that no more than two to three initiatives are being managed at any given time. I welcome hearing from readers about their own professional growth experience.