Who will lead your company into the future? It’s a question on the mind of many executives, especially as the pace of retirement among the Baby Boomer generation accelerates — by 2030, the entire cohort will be 65 or older. As the new generation steps into the workforce and mid-level professionals assess their career paths, learning and development teams play an important role in cultivating the talent companies need.
At The Boeing Company, which added nearly 15,000 new employees to its workforce of 156,000 just last year, Kirsten Schwab, chief learning officer, vice president of learning and development, explains her team has three focus areas:
- Building foundational skills
- Improving workforce capability
- Leadership development
To address the latter, Boeing developed an intensive program called Leadership NeXt (LX) that incorporates a nomination and selection process, leadership support, and real-world experience. The strategy is clear: invest in developing employees into leaders who go on to have long-tenured careers at the aerospace manufacturing company. In fact, over the past five years, 72% of employees who have gone through Leadership NeXt have become Boeing managers and technical leaders.
Senior Executive L&D recently spoke with Schwab about Boeing’s Leadership NeXt program and how current leaders play a central role in its success. Read on for an edited excerpt from that discussion.
Senior Executive Media: What’s the Leadership NeXt program?
Kirsten Schwab: This program is taking individuals who really aspire to a technical or people leadership role — who want to become managers in our business and/or managers of our people. It’s a very competitive program… We bring about 200 future leaders into it each year from across the globe. They go through a two-year, very intensive development program, coupled with business challenges, working with new peers and mentors, and a lot of learning wrapped around it… When they step into those leadership roles, they’re really ready and prepared to take on leading our people and business.
[The program has] been in place since 2017, and it just continues to get better and better, each and every year. Since the start of the program, we have nearly 400 individuals who are now managers inside of Boeing and actually leading our people, teams, and business.
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Senior Executive Media: What does the application and interview process look like, and what is L&D’s involvement?
Kirsten Schwab: It is open to employees in all business units and functions around the globe… Applicants must be individual contributors with at least two years of employment at Boeing or its subsidiaries… There’s an open application cycle annually where employees can self-nominate. The process includes an application, executive and leader endorsements, and an interview. Your manager, in addition, has to support you going into the program.
Applicants respond to a number of questions about their informal leadership experiences. They are also required to identify four different endorsers who provide input on the applicant’s leadership capability. Interviews are conducted by current LX members with at least one manager or HR partner on the panel. This is part of their experience to learn how to conduct interviews with guidance from HR. Interviews are scored by the panel, which then evaluates scores and the top candidates receive an invitation into the program.
L&D verifies eligibility for the program, and ensures we have HR support for the interview panels and approve the final down-select. L&D is there alongside the LX members throughout the process to provide guidance and ensure they are learning how to conduct interviews, provide solid feedback, and onboard new participants.
Senior Executive Media: In what ways do the participants of the program engage with current leaders?
Kirsten Schwab: Leadership engagement is embedded throughout the program and they’ll have support from leaders at all levels. Throughout the program, employees will have a mentor and meet with leaders within their…organization structure regularly. Participants are able to share their experiences, development they’re gaining, and engage in an immersive experience in an area of the business that is new to them. LX participants become part of a community, attending in-person events where they learn from one another, connect and share business and leadership experiences. They meet with some of our most senior leaders in the company.
Senior Executive Media: What leadership development opportunities do participants get to experience?
Kirsten Schwab: It’s across the company and across functions. It’s a great way to get connection and exposure to this group of talent who isn’t necessarily working side by side with each other every day. You could have an engineer in there, you can have an HR professional, a finance professional, someone leading a part of our program management function, all in different geographic locations.
There’s a lot of structure around [the program]… It is led by Boeing’s learning and development organization. We design a lot of the learning, but those who are in the program do a lot of leading the program and helping to design and really bring it to life… Some of it is experiential learning; part of it’s a global experience or assignment that they do. There’s a business challenge that’s constructed by the business that they go through. It could involve internal functional or job rotations. [It could] include an opportunity to temporarily lead a team in some cases.
Stepping into a technical leadership or people leader role at the company is the goal after they complete the program.
Senior Executive Media: What advice would you give to fellow L&D leaders looking to establish a leadership development program?
Kirsten Schwab: At the end of the day, our leaders that develop through these programs are here to lead our business and our people. These programs are most successful when HR leaders out in the business, learning and development professionals, and our business leaders all come together, to support and sponsor these aspiring leaders… Development programs like this are about our future and ensuring we’ve got the very best leaders and a pool of really great talent that will become our future people leaders.
I would encourage any company or learning professionals that you really have that integrated collaborative model with learning, HR in the business, and business leaders that are sponsoring and driving [the program] in order for it to be successful.