FedEx is a company that prides itself on breakthrough thinking and crisp execution. Founder and CEO Fred Smith didn't just start a company in 1973; he invented an industry. The company now handles nearly 3 million packages a day and remains the undisputed leader of the overnight-delivery business.
One reason why FedEx is a corporate leader is that it is an organization filled with individual leaders. Indeed, the company has designed the process by which it turns rank-and-file employees into middle managers (and then senior leaders) with as much creativity and attention to detail as the process by which it sorts packages in its Memphis hub. Want to know what kinds of people make good leaders at FedEx? The company has identified nine core attributes. (See "The 9 Faces of Leadership") Want to know what new leaders need to learn? The FedEx leadership curriculum takes up to 14 months to complete. Want to know the first question that aspiring managers should ask themselves? FedEx has the answer: Is management for me?
"Most people don't realize all the rewards that management has to offer," says Bill Hooker, a senior human-resources specialist at FedEx. "They also don't realize all the frustrations."
Every year, about 3,000 FedEx employees decide they're ready for the fast track and enter LEAP - the Leadership Evaluation and Awareness Process. FedEx initiated LEAP about a decade ago, after CEO Smith realized that more than 10% of first-time managers were leaving the company within just 14 months of taking on their new assignments. That's why the first LEAP module involves an eight-hour class called "Is Management for Me?" (IMFM). Senior FedEx executives teach these sessions, which take place around the world.
These eight hours change lots of minds. Fully 20% of the people who experience IMFM choose to pursue a different experience at FedEx - and drop out of LEAP. What are the factors that change people's minds? George Pollard, a senior official in human resources, identifies the three biggest frustrations that come with being a leader - at FedEx or at any company. One is the increased workload. "Lots of people don't understand that a manager's workday starts hours before a shift and ends hours after a shift," Pollard says. Another is the unrelenting sense of obligation. "Managers are never 'off-the-clock,'" he argues. "We are always representatives of FedEx, even when we're not at work." A third is the headache of responsibility for other people. "I don't know of any manager who enjoys disciplining people," he says, "but that is a real part of being a manager."
Mary Smith is one FedEx employee who got the message. A former high-school teacher, she joined the company in 1994 and went to work at the Memphis hub. She was an immediate success and soon moved into the company's logistics division. In the spring of 1996, her boss suggested that she was management material and urged her to enroll in LEAP. She did, and took an IMFM class. That class opened her eyes to the challenges of leadership. She decided to drop out of LEAP and to make an impact at FedEx in a nonmanagerial role. She transferred to human resources, where she develops training material for customer-service agents.
"I realized how tough a manager's job is," she explains. "And I learned a lot about the transition. You have to make hard decisions about people, decisions you might not be happy with. I certainly have more sympathy for my manager today."
Trent Cobb, an 18-year FedEx veteran, made a different choice. He had spent 10 years in HR, where one of his roles was to facilitate leadership training. Then, in 1990, he decided it was time for him to become a leader. "I had watched the growth of the company, and I saw lots of opportunities to make a serious contribution," he says. So he enrolled in LEAP, attended the IMFM course, and had long talks with his wife about the pressures of life as a FedEx leader.
Today he is a manager of international- hub operations in Memphis. He has a prominent role in conducting FedEx's business outside the United States and travels around the world for the company. And he's never had more fun. "The transition was good from day one," he says. "I knew what was expected of me as a manager. If you know at the outset how this change is going to affect you, it's much easier to handle."
The self-evaluation encouraged by IMFM is the earliest in a series of rigorous evaluations that FedEx employees must survive before they can become managers. Indeed, only 20% of those who start LEAP ever make it to the final stage of the process.
"Too many people get into leadership for all the wrong reasons," says Steve Nielsen, managing director of the FedEx Leadership Institute. "They want power. They think it's the only way to advance. LEAP is a gate that everyone has to pass through. And those who pass through it are attuned to what it means to lead and to work effectively with other people."
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.