Building a Strong Foundation for Executive Leadership 

With numbers from annual survey on state of edtech leadership development 2024. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Collin Earnst

NUTHAWUT SOMSUK

Executive leadership depth is a critical success factor for high-growth edtech companies. This becomes particularly important when facing challenging circumstances, as we are in the post-ESSER landscape. However, valuing leadership and cultivating it are two very different concepts. 

‘…valuing leadership and cultivating it are two very different concepts.’ 

My organization, the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, conducts an annual survey on the State of Ed-tech Leadership Development, examining how companies foster leadership and how it impacts their overall success. The 2024 survey results, which reflect the perspectives of 157 edtech leaders, shed light on some increasingly important lessons regarding how edtech companies need to respond. 

Conflicting Viewpoints on Leadership Readiness 

In our survey, company leaders expressed concerns regarding leadership depth outside of the C-suite. Most C-suite leaders (83%) said that their team’s lack of experience is affecting company growth. Non-executive leaders typically bear significant responsibility for carrying out the mission-critical work of the business, and most C-suite respondents (78%) felt that their company goals would be at risk if their non-executive leaders were to struggle. Clearly, the C-suite seems uneasy about their organization’s next level of leadership

One way to assess leadership depth is to examine how likely companies are to promote from within their organizations for key roles. We asked C-level executives whether they had capable internal candidates to succeed current executive team members in the event of an unexpected vacancy. Only 9% were confident in their ability to do so. 

However, when we asked department heads about their readiness to be promoted, we found a stark misalignment in expectations. More than half (58%) said they were confident or very confident that they were ready to step-up to the executive team.

Clearly, this nearly 50-point confidence gap in executive leadership capacity is a red flag. But how can these two groups be so far apart in their perception of the situation? 

What Does Leadership Readiness Look Like? 

I think about leadership capacity in terms of three elements: managerial expertise, functional expertise, and domain expertise. Readiness for advancement requires a combination of all three skills. Too often, companies gravitate toward developing functional expertise (skills specific to the department in which one works) or domain expertise (knowledge related to K-12 education). These areas of expertise are relatively easy to observe and measure—and are often what gets rewarded during performance assessments. 

However, according to our survey, the most common skill area lacking for aspiring C-suite leaders is managerial expertise (58%). This includes competencies like managing metrics-based goals, problem analysis and decision-making, delegating and empowering team members, and communication. These are the underlying elements of what many refer to as “executive presence.”

It’s common to see aspiring leaders who are well-versed in K-12 ed-tech and adept at the tactical and strategic aspects of their functional area yet struggle at the next level of leadership because they lack the communication and delegation skills to effectively manage across and manage up. 

‘It’s common to see aspiring leaders who are well-versed in K-12 ed-tech and adept at the tactical and strategic aspects of their functional area yet struggle at the next level of leadership because they lack the communication and delegation skills to effectively manage across and manage up.’ 

Most likely, when aspiring executives feel confident in their readiness for promotion, it’s because of their perceived strength in functional or domain expertise. Creating a distinction regarding the specific expertise required for executive leadership is essential for achieving better alignment on expectations regarding what’s required at the next level. 

Clarifying the Path Forward

Managers are crucial in advancing team members’ careers but often fail to provide the necessary support, leaving many aspiring executives unclear about their path to advancement.

More than half (55%) of aspiring executives indicated that their manager hasn’t offered any specific guidance on how to reach the next level, despite being generally supportive of their advancement. Some (30%) received vague guidance, while others (15%) received no guidance or support whatsoever.

Interestingly, 72% of C-level executives admit that their high-potential employees aren’t receiving the mentoring and support needed to fully develop. With this shortfall in professional development, how can we realistically expect aspiring leaders to be prepared for advancement?

Approaching Professional Growth with Intentionality 

Cultivating a deep bench of talented executives not only requires companies to clearly define the path to advancement, but also to provide the ongoing feedback, support and coaching to reinforce behaviors and incorporate new skills. Companies must create a distinction between the gaps in managerial, functional and domain expertise, and managers should be held accountable for providing clear guidance and support for developing those skills.  

If mentoring your team seems overwhelming, consider offering them memberships in leadership accelerators or professional peer groups. These platforms allow them to develop their functional, domain and managerial expertise, embrace best practices, and receive candid feedback as they grow. Such environments not only bolster their decision-making confidence, but they also create a supportive community that encourages personal accountability as they evolve as leaders.

When companies are intentional about how they develop their aspiring executives, they can build the kind of leadership depth that will strengthen their organization, minimize risk, and help drive the business forward. 

Collin Earnst is founder and managing partner of the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, an organization focused on building leadership capacity in K-12 ed-tech organizations. Connect with Collin on LinkedIn

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