Year after year organisations invest large sums in an attempt to improve their leadership capability as a means to create organisational cultures which deliver for customers and shareholders. In the majority of cases, many of these leadership development interventions deliver none of the intended promised changes in performance. The failure of leadership development programs can actually result in increased organisational cynicism and a further decline in employee engagement, as employees perceive management wasting money they have been asked to cut or save. Leadership development begins to be perceived as a waste of time, where leaders are seen to indulge themselves in management “love in’s” and off- sites in stylish hotels. The leaders who attend leadership development programs that fail to deliver can also be left feeling helpless, as despite completion of such programs they are still unable to cope with the demands their leadership roles expect of them.
When the promised changes do not eventuate, and when employees do not experience the change in leadership behaviours promised, cynicism and resent are natural and predictable responses. If you want to understand how leadership development is viewed in your organisation ask someone who is not privy to it. If the results of such programs are not visible here, it is likely they are not creating the change you seek.
New research from the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne funded by the Australian Federal Government on the state of Australian leadership was published recently. The findings point to mediocre leadership capability being a systemic issue leading to poor business performance across Australian organisations. Many of these organisations are global brands. Without too much of a stretch of the imagination, it likely the findings might be similar for organisations in other countries as approaches to leadership development globally are not that diverse.
Why do leadership development programs fail?
If an organisation were a garden and you were the gardener, which plants would you give water and attention too? The new shoots, the seedlings and smaller plants or the mature trees? One of the key findings of this research points to a huge underinvestment in frontline leadership. For every $10 spent on senior leaders only $1 is invested in developing frontline leadership. This has negative implications for creating a pipeline of future leadership and is impacting business performance.
Again imagine you are the gardener, conditions are harsh and you only have limited water and resources to spare. Do you pour it over the established trees? Or do you sprinkle it over your precious seedlings who have just broken through the soil? At the moment from a leadership development perspective, we seem to be preoccupied with watering the trees, a strategy which has not delivered the required change. For organisations to flourish, it is clear we need to think differently about where investment is focused and how the development of leadership throughout the leadership lifecycle is approached.
Treating leadership development as an elitist reward for making it to the senior ranks does nothing to move the organisation forward into a high performing space, focusing leadership development on so-called HIPO talent neglects the leadership experienced by the majority of employees in the organisation. Employees inherit failing unsupported leaders because the organisation does not consider them high performing. This is a perfect recipe for low employee engagement, something we are all too familiar with. It is also a dereliction of a duty of care to those employees. Ineffective leadership fails to serve the legitimate aims of the organisation and also fails to recognise the potential and of individuals and teams.
Designed to fail?
The way leadership development programs are designed and structured is a key reason why they fail to deliver the desired change in leadership capability. Many development programs focus on what is termed horizontal development that is the acquisition of new skills and information. The premise being that leaders lack the required skills and information, therefore to become effective leaders they need to acquire new skills and information. This approach is actually leadership training and should not be confused with leadership development, it does have its place. Leaders need to acquire new skills and information as thinking in the leadership space evolves. It is not this acquisition however of new information that builds inspiring leaders.
What fuels leadership development is exposure to real work situations where a leader’s perspective taking capacity is challenged and where as a result of the experience, creates in a leader an ability appreciate multiple differing perspectives simultaneously. That is to say, the leader is now able to sit comfortably with situations others might describe as paradoxical. The development experience may be described as the “heat” in the experience, the leader is taken out of their own comfort zone where they are stretched into unfamiliar territory where growth happens. Exposure to being mentally stretched in real work situations provides leaders with the capacity to grow and develop, it is this realisation that cascades ongoing future development for many leaders. The knowledge that discomfort gives way to development and growth.
Many leadership development programs are designed without first undertaking an extensive diagnostic process that identifies the key issues within any system which limit the development of leadership talent. It is unlikely that a diagnostic process undertaken internally can deliver the required insight, the premise being you can’t see the problem if you are already part of it. Internal politics and power relationships may also bias findings which identify unpopular issues which require attention. This is not to say that an external diagnostic is not subject to bias. The promise of an ongoing business relationship with a leadership development provider may be sufficient to taint the messaging the provider communicates to an organisation. The organisation is given what it wants to hear rather than what it needs to hear. Perhaps the answer resides in a collaborative approach driven by a strong desire for authentic understanding?
Many third-party providers of leadership development programs are selling products and tools or what some term leadership systems. The sale of these products or systems forms the basis of the intervention. It is not necessarily what the organisation needs. It is unlikely that a range of leadership products will meet the unique needs of the organisation in question. It is not to say that certain leadership development tools are not useful, they can be. It is just to say alone they are not the solution to all leadership woes, buyer beware.
We have all heard the adage it takes a village to raise a child, well it also takes a whole range of other people to help create amazing leaders. Leadership development programs need to involve stakeholders as an integral part of the developing leader’s growth journey. Gaining feedback from these stakeholders regarding areas for development and also progress against set goals is a wonderful way to develop leaders and also a fantastic way to engage and build trust with key stakeholders, this is where being vulnerable builds capital in relationships.
There is a great pressure on leadership development practitioners to deliver changed leaders quickly, however, real change does not occur overnight. The industrialised world may have accelerated at light speed over the last 200 years, however, human evolution moves at a much a slower pace. Human beings are slow to change and change is hard for people to make. Leadership development programs need to be long enough to achieve the goals of development programs and embed new ways of leading. Leadership development programs that run over a few months have little chance of effecting sustained change.
There is also a need for support structures to be in place such as coaching and mentoring programs to support leaders while they make sense of new ways of seeing the world and embed those changes in the way they lead. Support is a key element of success in development programs, for many leaders being experienced differently by others is a painful process, support to develop new ways of leading and these new ways of sense-making of the world is key to success. The structures created by leadership development program need to be left in place once the program has ended to ensure leader growth continues, they should not be considered temporary structures.
Key elements of successful leadership development programs
1. Ensure a thorough collaborative diagnostic process is undertaken by an external independent party which creates a clear understanding of the systemic challenges facing developing leaders in your organisation.
2. Focus the investment where it will have the greatest sustainable impact on your pipeline of leadership.
3. Continually adapt your approach to leadership development, understand that any leadership development program needs to continually evolve. What might deliver success today may not deliver the same success tomorrow. Successful leadership development is contextual, always be aware of the context. Programs that adapt to changing conditions remain relevant and deliver results.
4. Leadership development programs need to be designed around exposure to real work situations. Real work situations provide the context and real-world experience for developing leaders where development can be directly translated into their daily leadership roles.
5. Successful programs provide differing ways for leaders to develop dependant on their individual needs and context. No one size fits all, the approach must be multifaceted.
6. Involving stakeholders in the development of leaders is a key element to assist in generating insight and supporting change. It is also a great way to build relationships with stakeholders.
7. Build and maintain support structures such as coaching and mentoring programs to support and embed new ways of making sense of situations and to help embed new approaches to leadership.
If you would like to discuss your own leadership development through coaching please make contact via the contact form.