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ATD Blog

Develop Your Leaders—but Build Your Organizational Savvy First

Monday, March 26, 2018

Are you responsible for your organization’s leadership development efforts? If so, you probably feel dismay when you read articles such as “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It.” This article appeared in Harvard Business Review with statements like, “Only one in four senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes.” Reported leadership training failures make all talent development professionals cringe.

As a profession, we are not keeping up with the demand or the quality of what we deliver for leadership development. In fact, in many cases we don’t even know what competencies our leaders need. In a recent study by DDI, The Conference Board, and Ernst & Young of 2,000 organizations around the world, less than half (48 percent) reported having an up-to-date status of their leadership talent capability. In addition, only 42 percent of 17,000 leaders responded that they believed the organization’s leadership development programs were high or very high quality. Even worse—only 14 percent of CEOs have the leadership talent to execute their organization’s strategy! Yikes!

Do you know what your leaders need to learn? Do you know what skills they will need to successfully execute your organization’s strategy? Do you know what will be expected of your leaders in the future? Do you understand what they face on a day-to-day basis?

If our organizations are to be successful, we must create a plan for developing our leaders and our future leaders that they find valuable and beneficial. I'm conducting a certificate program prior to the start of ATD 2018 entitled Creating Leadership Development Programs. In it, we will discuss what you need to consider when developing your organization’s leadership development program, and review predictions of what the future of leadership development will look like. Then it will be up to you to align your organization’s requirements to what’s available.

If you are involved in developing your leaders, here are seven things you can do today to help you understand what your leaders and your organization require tomorrow.

Get in Lockstep With Your Leadership Team
Who are they? What’s important to them? What keeps them up at night? What’s on their bookshelves? What does that say about their business philosophy? Ask questions and observe. Find opportunities to spend time with your leaders and prominent members of their teams. Talk to them to learn what hopes they have for the organization. Build one-on-one relationships so that you can have comfortable discussions to determine how you can best help them meet their goals.


Speak the Language of Business
Of course you need to be a good communicator, but speaking in the C-suite language takes it to another level. Talk about what’s important to them—not you. Be conscious of the budgeting timeline, processes, and criteria. Learn more about emerging industry trends and how they will affect your organization. What do you know about your competitors and how your organization differentiates itself?

Study Your Business’s Strategy
Gain a clear understanding of the strategic imperative, the goals, and the plans to achieve them. Can you list the top three goals? These strategies may include what you expect, such as sales growth, employee engagement, or employee retention; they might also include innovative product development, agility, or leveraging the contingent workforce. What does your organization need to achieve its strategy? Read the strategic plan and know what skills it will require of leadership.

Become a Systems Thinker
Gather ideas from different parts of the organization, showing that you understand how changes in one part of the organization affect the rest of the organization. Help to manage change. In addition to thinking about the whole, think long term. What do you know about trends in the world that may cause challenges for your organization in the future?


Know Your Industry
Who are the industry leaders? How is your organization viewed within the industry? What do you think the future holds? Who are your top competitors and what advantages do they have over your organization? What are their current and future plans? What disruptions are in store for the industry?

Anticipate Your Company’s Needs
Do your research. Learn what’s happening that might affect your organization. Attend industry meetings. Connect with people outside the organization. Read industry journals. Use the business cycle and company communications to forecast what will be needed. Know the company’s strategies and plans. Understand how your company makes money and what Wall Street is predicting. Learn what your customers are asking for. Know the challenges your company is trying to address. Who are your key suppliers and how are their capabilities viewed? How will that support or deter your organization in the future?

Analyze Your Organizational Values
Your leadership development efforts should mimic your organization’s brand and values. Focusing on what your organization is known for helps you customize your approach. What does your company value? What is rewarded, and what is punished? How are problems addressed?

There are many more things you can learn about your organization, but this is a good place to start. And of course you need to also stay on top of the most recent talent development tools, techniques, strategies, and research. But too many people try to use only what’s new in our industry and don’t try to learn all they can about their own organization. Don’t make that mistake.

Before you spend any more time developing your leaders, develop your own organizational savvy. After all, how can you develop leaders if you don’t know what they need to know, what they do every day, and what will define their success in the future?

About the Author

Elaine Biech, president of ebb associates inc, a strategic implementation, leadership development, and experiential learning consulting firm, has been in the field for 30 years helping organizations work through large-scale change. She has presented at dozens of national and international conferences and has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Management Update, Investors Business Daily, and Fortune Magazine. She is the author and editor of over 50 books, including the ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, ASTD Leadership Handbook, 10 Steps to Successful Training, The Ultimate Trainer, Thriving Through Change, The Business of Consulting, 2nd ed., and Training for Dummies. A long time volunteer for ASTD, she has served on ASTD's National Board of Directors, was the recipient of the 1992 ASTD Torch Award, the 2004 ASTD Volunteer Staff Partnership Award, and the 2006 Gordon Bliss Memorial Award. Elaine was instrumental in compiling the CPLP study guides and has designed five ASTD Certificate Programs. In addition to her work with ATD, she has served on the Independent Consultants Association's (ICA) Advisory Committee and on the Instructional Systems Association (ISA) board of directors.

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