The military has had to overcome one hurdle that few organizations have to contend with: it must grow its own leaders. Many of the recruiting resources that are available to civilian organizations simply are not an option for the military.
This challenge has allowed the military to become a model for leader development. Nowhere is this more concentrated than on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Leader development is the reason that West Point exists—it is the very essence of its purpose. Construction companies could learn many lessons from this time-tested culture. West Point is and has been committed to developing leaders not only for the military but also for the U.S. community at large. Many of the principles established at West Point are also very applicable to the construction industry.
The approach to leader development at West Point follows a simple but effective cycle:
- Experience—specific experiences are orchestrated to create specific types of learning outcomes.
- Assessment—key lessons are extracted from each experience and cadets are reviewed based on how they perform.
- Preparation—feedback received in the assessment phase becomes a springboard for preparation for the next experience.
Considerable thought is put into selecting and crafting real-life experiences that will have the greatest development value for cadets. West Point does not downplay the importance of training and classroom instruction, but understands that to take a principle from knowledge to inherent behavior, there is no substitute for experience.
West Point provides very intentional experiences for the cadets. The cadet wing is structured to match an Army brigade and experiences are essential during the course of a 4-year career at West Point.
Experiences are grouped according to the year of the cadet and are based on four levels of leadership: followership in year 1, face-to-face or direct leadership in year 2, indirect leadership in year 3, and executive/organizational leadership in year 4.
When going through the process of identifying and cultivating emerging leaders in your organization, you need to select assignments that will prepare them for a future position. Consider the experiences that a project engineer, junior project manager, or project manager should have in their first 4 years. How can you be intentional about creating learning experiences that help develop your next generation of leaders?
The next phase of leader development is the most critical. At West Point, cadets are constantly assessed and given feedback on their performance. The annual or semi-annual review that is common in many companies is not sufficient in this environment, and feedback is not limited to superiors.
Cadets receive peer feedback on a quarterly basis. On any Army exercise, the commanders give their troops immediate informal feedback and daily formal feedback (command staff with a learning agenda).
A culture that truly values honest feedback is essential to constant learning and improvement. In a business setting, this means that any person at any level should be open to receiving feedback from those at any other level, at any time. Consider the amount of feedback your emerging leaders are receiving. Is it the kind that brings their most recent experience to the forefront of learning? Do they feel compelled to improve on every task because they are being developed and pushed to excel at their trade?
At FMI, we focus on helping organizations increase and improve the amount of daily feedback created on a project site. This is a gift that you have as a leader—to give constructive feedback to the next generation of leaders. Your young leaders will thrive on insightful feedback. They want to know that someone in the organization is giving personal oversight to their development.
The last step is to ensure that the feedback is preparing the leader for the next phase in his or her development.
The last step in this developmental cycle is preparing for the next experience based on all the feedback that was provided. Great leaders have a vision for developing talent that they have on the team. Have in mind what the next steps of development are for the emerging leaders in your organization. Take the time to consider how their leadership skills can be developed in smaller chunks of time.
At West Point, there is an obvious and intentional progression in the type of leadership being developed at each level of the cadet’s 4 years. This lesson is easily transferable to an organizational setting. By identifying emerging leaders early, they can be given experiences that will help them progress through the levels of leadership. Along this journey they will be assessed on their performance, and given feedback that will help them prepare for future assignments and levels of leadership.
West Point has been developing leaders for more than 200 years—its track record is undeniable. The model it uses can be applied in your organization. Be intentional and purposeful in the experiences you provide, give focused and immediate feedback, and be thoughtful in the next steps of development.
Your organization depends on the talent it has—it is all about your people. Your challenge is to create and implement a model of development that will generate the results you are looking for in building a company that is built to last.