By "mass customization", I'm referring to the the need to address very unique leadership development needs for an organization's top executives, while at the same time, doing it in a consistent, measurable, effective, and scalable way that yields a strong return on investment.
In order to do this, many organizations turn to "Individual Development Plans", or IDPs. However, a lot of these same organizations struggle with creating effective development plans, and get frustrated when even the best plans don't get implemented and produce the results they hoped to achieve.
I think what often happens is that organizations are lured into believing that IDPs are a cheap and easy shortcut to leadership development (compared to more expensive executive development training programs). They fail to appreciate how much commitment and rigor is needed to create and implement them.
We've all taken pragmatic shortcuts when it comes to IDPs. I know I sure have. It's one thing to write about how to create and implement the ideal executive IDP process - it's another thing when you are dealing with real, live human beings, as well as organizational culture and politics. However, if I could wave my magic wand and design the perfect process, it would look something like this:
1. CEO ownership and strong commitment at the top.
This is where it all starts and ends. If the CEO owns the process and believes in the strategic importance, good things will happen. Without it, while you may get a few isolated wins, most of it will turn into just another corporate program to give lip service to and quickly fades away.
2. A dedicated, competent, trusted support team.
While it's important for the CEO to own the process, even the best CEOs will need assistance. Without it they won't have the time or expertise required to manage the development of 10-20 executives or high potentials.
A support team should consist of the head of HR, a project manager and or administrative support person, and at least one executive "coach" (or more, depending on the number of IDPs). The coach should be someone internal or external that has experience and expertise in working with senior leaders on their development. That expertise may reside in HR, OD, training, or outside of the organization.
3. Assessment of each participant's development needs.
At the top of an organization, no two executive's development needs are the same. And even if they look the same, the context is always unique.
Assessment can start with a talent review, using a tool like a performance and potential matrix (9-box), but it shouldn't end there. A more accurate diagnosis of development needs can be achieved by using a reliable 360 degree assessment and/or other executive assessments. Stakeholder reviews are often conducted as a follow-up to the assessment tool. Some organizations, if they can afford them, will use a rigorous "assessment center" methodology, which incorporates a battery of assessments, simulations, and interviews.
All of this data is then gathered and summarized, and presented to each participant as input to their development plan.
4. A developmental partnership and shared ownership.
I believe the best IDP processes don't just leave it up to the individual or their direct manager, who often don't have the expertise needed to interpret assessment data and write an effective IDP. They also don't leave it up to the support team, which will end up in a lack of involvement and commitment. The best approach is for all parties to be involved - the CEO and senior team, a coach, the participant and their manager. While the CEO is usually not directly involved in the process and discussion, they need to review and approve each plan, as well as provide input. The particiapnt, thier manager, and a coach create the plan together and all have a part to play in implementation.
5. Tracking and follow-up.
The support team needs to put a system in place to gather all plans, establish metrics, goals and accountability, monitor progress, report on progress, and recommend corrective actions. They are responsible for establishing a rigorous quality control process that ensures consistency and results.
The CEO then manages this portfolio of development plans the same way the CFO manages the company's financial assets.
While this may sound like too much hand-holding or baby-sitting, unfortunately, without it, good intentions don't usually translate to action and results.
Over time, the culture will become strong enough to sustain executive development without forms, process, tracking, and support - but you'll need to be patient, it takes time.
6. Managers should be trained on how to support development.
One of the advantages of using a coach from the support team is that the coach's expertise will usually rub off on the participants and their managers, creating a developmental, cascading "ripple effect". At the same time, when training is provided to the managers in how to create development plans, coaching, feedback, mentoring, etc... they'll become self-sufficient faster and the organization will reap far greater benefits.
Executive individual development plans can be an effective component of your organization's leadership development strategy. However, just remember, the more you put into it the more you'll get out of it.