If You Think Leadership Development Is a Waste of Time You May Be Right
There’s a dirty little secret in leadership development circles: many of us in the industry wonder at times how effective our work actually is. Sure, we can develop a rousing program, present compelling concepts, and entertain the crowd. That’s often what clients ask of us. But there are a myriad of factors that go into producing better leaders. How does spending hours cooped up in a contained learning environment actually end up producing more effective leaders? It’s a question worth exploring.
A 2012 study found that American companies spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development training. There are thousands and thousands of books on leadership (including mine), training targeted at any function or level, and executive programs at the world’s most esteemed universities. In other words, there’s a lot of energy and resources being spent on these programs. This is a good thing. We know we need skillful leaders, and that leadership can be learned.
However, so many times, after the leadership program ends, new behaviors aren’t sustained. Studies have found that adult learners in a lecture setting forget nearly 50% of what they learn within two weeks. And consider that the most highly trained leaders – CEOs – are often not able to translate their knowledge into experience. The Center for Creative Leadership found that 38% of new chief executives fail in their first 18 months on the job.
So what factors make for a rich, enduring leadership development program? What factors actually create better leaders? What makes the investment in leadership training worth it?
Here are several considerations.
We know from research that content that’s relevant to one’s own experience and builds upon prior knowledge is most likely to be retained. Leadership programs must integrate with the larger scope of the organization. Bringing in someone to deliver the standard pump-up-the-troops program may be briefly engaging, but not produce any behavior change.
Before spending a dime on training, it’s important to clarify: what is the purpose and goal? It’s far more effective to focus on specific leadership skills that are pertinent to the vision and growth of the company and make sure the design is carefully tailored to them.
In an article titled “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail” put out by McKinsey & Company, the authors discuss the problems–and solution–to these general approaches to leadership development: “What we often find is a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies, and corporate-values statements. Each is usually summarized in a seemingly easy-to-remember way (such as the three Rs), and each on its own terms makes sense. In practice, however, what managers and employees often see is an ‘alphabet soup’ of recommendations. We have found that when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in its business—such as high-quality decision making or stronger coaching skills—it achieves far better outcomes.”
#2: Continual motion.
A training program should be viewed as the beginning of the leadership development process, not the end. It’s critical that after the program is complete, there’s a sustained effort to maintain momentum and individualize learning.
There are many ways to accomplish this. Some companies include personal executive coaching. Others establish a learning cohort that meets regularly and discusses concepts. It can also be valuable to conduct shorter trainings over a longer period of time, i.e. 4 one-day sessions rather than 1 four-day session. By stretching the learning out, you avoid overload and allow the concepts to be gradually advanced in a real-world context.
This is one of the hardest ones – how do you actually measure something like leadership? Many well-meaning measurement protocols end up backfiring. Consider the number of participants promoted, which is often a measurement of program success. If the company has a few bad quarters and cuts back, then that metric becomes meaningless.
Most companies use what my friend calls smile sheets: those ubiquitous ratings of 1-5 on score sheets you fill out at the end of a program. They measure how much participants enjoyed the program, and while a consideration, is not a meaningful goal.
Companies need to carefully consider what measurement should be well ahead of time. Are people getting promoted faster? Are managers seeing an improvement on performance reviews? Is the pool of succession candidates getting deeper? It often takes a year or more to see this fleshed out so patience and clarity are both key.
#4: Courageous content.
Peter Bregman, business advisor and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, argues that leadership development programs strive too earnestly to create safe environments for learning. But the best learning often comes in times of risk and struggle.
Leadership programs need to place people in real life-situations, not just provide case studies. “If the challenge of leadership is emotional courage, then emotional courage is what we need to teach. You can’t just learn about communication, you have to do it, in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, and your emotions are high,” Bregman writes.
For a leader to actually learn new skills, he or she has to be put in situations that test their capacities and knowledge in order to ultimately improve. As an example, I often do a real-life feedback exercise in my programs that initially causes discomfort and even pushback. But participants learn about their own hesitancies in the process and test out new strategies. In the end, it’s consistently rated as the best takeaway of the program.
#5: Clear and honest program rationale.
Finally, we also have to be courageous about the reason for the leadership program in the first place. If there’s a serious deficit that needs to be addressed, it’s better to be honest about it. If high performers are being put into a program to escalate promotion, then be clear about that. If the program is meant to top-grade skills for current positions, that’s fine too.
Everyone is well-meaning, and this can get in the way. Too often, companies disguise, or don’t know, the real reason for the program. They worry about setting incorrect expectations. Just because a senior leader wants it doesn’t make a program meaningful. Greater transparency about why participants are selected and what the program will lead to is critical. Otherwise, there’s widespread skepticism and even frustration which foils learning every time.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She blogs at kristihedges.com.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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