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Stop the Insanity in Leadership Development


Fri Nov 20 2015

Stop the Insanity in Leadership Development-bef56b58793ccad9d94bd629db116210384ab03f973aceff2ba4f4a40370db72

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the need to revolutionize leadership development. Why? Current leadership development initiatives are not seen as effective by senior leaders, the right people aren’t being trained, and the training doesn’t last much longer than the classroom instruction (live or virtual). 

Industry research concurs with this assessment. “Our clients consistently tell us that leadership development is a top concern, and they continue to be dissatisfied with their results,” said Anthony Abbatiello, principal analysts for the U.S.-based arm of Deloitte Leadership. In fact, only 13 percent of leaders feel like they’re doing a good job, according to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report, and one of the reasons is that they’re “not adequately prepared for their positions.” 


What can organizations do? To start, organizations need to address a few questions: 

  • Are we selecting the right people that have the ability to be leaders? (Considerations: selection, hiring, succession planning.)

  • How is the learning transferred or presented to the team or unit when employees participate individually in leadership training? If employees go through training as a group, it’s typically with your peers, not your team. (Considerations: learning transfer and learning design.)

  • How can the learning be used on the job when it’s not understood or valued by bosses? (Consideration: learning reinforcement and learning application.)

  • Why would you use new learning if it’s not rewarded, reinforced, or measured? (Considerations: learning reinforcement, measurement and evaluation, and incentives.)

  • How can you apply the learning if it doesn’t fit the culture, needs, and goals of your specific organization, division, business unit? (Consideration: learning designs)

  • Why would you risk your career in getting up to speed and trying to use new skills when you don’t have the time to do that? Are you paid to get the work done or develop people? If the work doesn’t get done, what happens to you? (Considerations: change management and learning reinforcement.)

  • Are you measuring the return on leadership development? If it’s not important to be measured, is important enough to do? (Considerations: ROI, evaluation and measurement, and systems thinking.) 

Opportunities for Improvement 

Many articles talk about what good leaders should do. The question is: What’s stopping people from being good—and preferably great—leaders? Is it they must work more than manage because they’re working managers? Is it that they don’t possess the skills identified earlier to be a good leader? Is it because leadership itself is not rewarded? 

Or is it that leadership development misses the mark? Have we been trying to develop leaders in a vacuum with a one-size-fits-all approach?  It’s time to change and stop this insanity. Fortunately, there are several opportunities to improve leadership development. 

Define leadership skills. In Good to Great Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus. Yet, the leadership bus doesn’t consistently take into account the right leadership skills for each specific organization. Fortunately, in a Connection Culture blog post, Wally Bock, author of the Three Star Leadership blog, does an excellent job of summarizing general key leadership skills: 

  • look for a positive work ethic

  • look for the willingness to confront others about performance

  • look for the willingness to make a decision and be accountable for results

  • look for behavior that indicates a joy in helping others succeed. 

Select the right people. We need to begin driving leadership development in a new way. That starts with placing people who should be leaders in those positions. Not just a good technical worker or person who has the right connections, but people who demonstrate the skills needed of a good leader. 


Don’t isolate leadership development. Don’t take the leader away from the team. Don’t set up a system that only supports working managers and short-term results and does not support growth and development of individuals, teams, and most of all, the organization for the long term. 

Leadership development should be done as a group or team, and as a part of an overall leadership development strategy. It should provide a common understanding of skills so the team can learn and use the skills together, instead of just one person getting access to that knowledge. 

Huckman and Staats conclude in their December 2013 Harvard Business Review article conclude that “What we do know is that in many cases, people who have collaborated before will work better together than people who haven’t—and that most organizations could do a far better job of exploiting this simple but powerful insight.” 

Include management. Leadership development programs must have involvement, commitment, and understanding of managers so they can reinforce new skills. It’s no longer enough to say, “We are sending you and just check off the box.” This goes for the team as well as individual training. 

John Darling of Q2 learning reports that “active involvement means at a minimum that the learner’s manager has a conversation with the learner before the person attends training to clarify the reason the boss sees the training as a good thing and to discuss mutual expectations for what the learner is to do with what they learn from the training when they get back on the job.” Darling adds that managers must verify that their subordinate is applying what they learned on the job.” 


**Make use of systems and processes.**Leadership development must have systems and processes in place to recognize and reward the use of new skills and behaviors. Key findings in a major incentive research study reported by Melissa Van Dyke from the Incentive Research Foundation identified the following value of incentives:

  • incentive programs improve performance

  • incentive programs engage participants

  • incentive programs attract quality employees

  • longer-term programs outperform short-term programs

  • executives and employees value incentive programs. 

Link to corporate culture. The title of a popular book says it best: Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch. Dr. Vanessa Iwowo of the London School of Economics addresses the need to ensure organizational culture as a key consideration in leadership development. Dr. Iwowo describes the need to tailor learning programs in her article, “Leadership Development: One size does not fit all Growing Leaders in Africa and Across the World.” 

Measure, measure, measure. Jack and Patti Phillips have spent their careers measuring return on investment for learning. Patti recently wrote about Measuring the Success for Leadership Development for the ATD Senior Leader Community blog. Dr. Phillips’ states “We all think about the business in general terms. But if you cannot identify the specific needs, how are you going to ensure you have the right solution and you position it for success? Be specific. Measurement is a balance between science and art, accuracy and costs, and costs and benefits. And balancing benefits with costs is the clear path to using resources wisely.” 

Make time. The lack of time people have to learn and the resentment of being forced to attend workshops creates a poor environment to engage learners. Stephen J. Meyer of the Rapid Learning Institute chronicles this challenge in describing a typical sales training situation in the Forbes article, “Why Workplace Learning Fails, and Why it’s Time to Ban the Fire Hose.” 

Putting It All Together 

We need to develop leaders with their teams or group collectively, build on their strengths, and fit the culture and unique needs of each individual organization. We need to look toward the future to determine what skills will be most necessary and develop those skills. We need to motivate and inspire each leader and team in a way that’s meaningful to them. This is the start that’s needed. It needs bold visionaries to step forward and say what we’re doing is not working, let’s change it. 

The next post will identify some methods that are working and how senior talent leaders can incorporate them as our industry begins to move leadership development toward greater success.

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