Category Archives: leadership training

Are "Hierophants" Really That Important? (McDonald’s Thinks So!)

Why Do We Need Hierophants?

Gandalf the Grey (later the Gandalf the White), Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and Professor Albus Dumbledore are all Hierophants. Mr. Miyagi, of Karate Kid fame (whether the first or second film release), is also a Hierophant. With this established, is a Hierophant something (or someone) that we really need – or is this just a nice artifact for certain film and story genres?

McDonald’s, a Fortune 500 company, certainly thinks that Hierophants are important.

A Hierophant is more than a teacher, coach, mentor, or guide – although he (or she!) is typically all of those roles. The “more than” is that the Hierophant is the means by which the traditions, “secret knowledge” (whether of spells or corporate plans), and values are transmitted from one leadership generation to another.

According to a Robert P. Gandossy and Nidhi Vermma, in “Passing the Torch of Leadership”, the implicit role of Hierophants is essential in ensuring that strong companies maintain their competitive edge. Quoting a study carried out by Stanford University researchers James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, as described in their best-seller Built to Last, these two researchers found that companies maintaining a stellar performance and managing 20th-century endurance had one essential ingredient: a culture of succession management. In other words, internal Hierophants trained the next generation of leaders.

Further, as described by Collins and Porras, and summarized in this article:

Organizations that embrace a formal, ongoing, top-to-bottom succession process that is a fundamental part of the corporate fabric–what we call best-in-class succession management–have developed a key ingredient for long-term success, as Collins and Porras demonstrated.

Is this sound advice? McDonald’s, a Fortune 500 company, certainly thinks so. In a Fortune article on Why McDonald’s wins in any economy (August, 2011), author Beth Kowitt describes a culture instituted by CEO Jim Skinner, who created “Hamburger U,” McDonald’s management training facility. According to Kowitt:

This push for talent development may be Skinner’s greatest legacy at the company, which has 700,000 employees in the U.S. alone…

His push for in-house talent development creates a substantial pool of leaders-in-training:

[Skinner] requires that all executives train at least two potential successors — one who could do the job today, the “ready now,” in McDonald’s parlance, and one who could be a future replacement, the “ready future.” … Every year the executive team, including Skinner, reviews the top 200 positions in the company and the feeder pool, which means it ends up looking at about 400 people. “We talk about all of them,” says HR chief Rich Floersch.

This is an excellent example of the Hierophant notion internalized into corporate values and training. We pay attention to that where we put our money. Clearly, McDonald’s is putting both attention – and money – into internalizing the Hierophant role within its culture.