Staffing Management

Leadership Development for All

By Patrick Kiger

May. 3, 2010

San Diego-based wireless telecommunications technology maker Qualcomm is a template for high-performing companies. The 16,000-employee organization has managed to earn the No. 7 spot on Fast Company magazine’s 2010 list of the most innovative American companies, while simultaneously scoring ninth place on Fortune’s list of the top 100 best places to work. And according to Tamar Elkeles, Qualcomm’s vice president for learning and development, the company’s unusual approach to leadership training is a major reason for the company’s success.

Unlike many companies, Qualcomm doesn’t try to separate out a few high-potential individuals and put them in a special fast-track development path designed to groom them for executive positions. Instead, Elkeles says, the company spreads its leadership development efforts throughout the entire workforce, from line-level technical managers to directors and senior executives. The idea is to help as many people as possible to develop leadership skills.

“We don’t tag people,” Elkeles explains. “Leaders develop at different paces, and blossom at different stages of their careers—and different stages in the company’s development. We believe that if we treat everyone as eligible for leadership training, the best leaders are going to emerge when they’re ready and when you need them.

“For us, flexibility and being able to adapt to the market is really crucial. It doesn’t make any sense to spend a lot of resources grooming someone for a specific position when we don’t even know if we’re going to be in that business in the future. We want to be in the position that if a business opportunity suddenly emerges in India and we need a person to run it, we can look at the entire talent pool and decide who is best suited for that job.”

Qualcomm’s leadership training starts with an introductory program in basic management skills, which aims, among other things, to train project managers with technical expertise how to supervise people as well. More experienced managers go into the company’s Leadership Skills program, which focuses more on studying specific business issues at the company and developing solutions for them. Even at the top, executives and directors continue to receive training, through the Executive Leadership Essentials program. “We think that you have to keep developing new skills and upgrading existing ones, no matter how high you’ve risen in the company,” Elkeles says.

Qualcomm typically uses a blended learning approach for leadership training. After a week of studying Qualcomm case histories—“we’re not big on hypothetical scenarios and simulations,” Elkeles says—or taking online training on management techniques, trainees often go back into their workplaces and try to apply what they’ve learned. Then they reconvene to evaluate their success and reinforce key points. Trainees also are encouraged to work with their classmates between sessions and help one another to improve their grasp of the material.

“The Qualcomm culture is built around cooperation, so we want people to be working together, rather than competing,” Elkeles says.

In an era when metrics tend to rule, Qualcomm uses only a few basic benchmarks to measure the effectiveness of its leadership training: the organization’s financial performance, employee satisfaction rates, and retention and promotion statistics. “It’s not all that complicated,” Elkeles says. “If you’ve got good leaders, for example, you tend to be able to retain workers, but if you’ve got poor leaders, you usually don’t. We’ve got a less than 5 percent rate of employees leaving the company, compared to the industry rate of 10 to 15 percent. So we must be doing something right.”

Workforce Management, May 2010, p. 28Subscribe Now!

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