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Solving the Leadership Development Dilemma

Wednesday, August 7, 2019
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Organizations face a common challenge: developing tomorrow’s leaders.

Federal agencies need a new type of leader to meet new challenges and opportunities—leaders with skills and capabilities beyond those of the past. While learning and development (L&D) leaders recognize these new leadership needs, traditional L&D efforts are failing.

To solve this dilemma, organizations must rethink their approach to development and ask themselves two questions: What skills are most important for the leaders of the future? And what will it take to develop them?

What does the leader of the future look like?

While traditional leadership principles will always be important, future effective leaders will require stronger development of soft skills such as problem solving, influencing, communication, and coaching. According to a study by Deloitte, 92 percent of executives rate soft skills as a critical priority for operating in today’s dynamic business environment.

Here’s an example of why: The demands on employees can create emotional turbulence and tension in the workplace, which leads employees to become self-protective, prioritizing their interests over the goals of the team or business. Performance weakens, people leave, and culture erodes.

Leaders need empathy and other interpersonal skills to build trust and engagement during challenging times. The ability to express concern about difficulties helps people feel understood and shows transparency, which can restore commitment.

Other soft skills, such as situational awareness, risk tolerance, and having a growth mindset help leaders navigate—and even thrive—during times of change. They are better able to tolerate ambiguity, have greater awareness of their environments, and can flex when conditions fluctuate.

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Managers also need the ability to build highly effective teams, assess employee fit, and create alignment amid shifting needs and priorities. Soft skills such as communication, influence, and problem solving are key to driving performance and preventing burnout—for themselves and their team members.

Current leadership development programs aren’t enough.

While soft skills are paramount, they are a market scarcity. Adecco Staffing reports that 44 percent of executives said a lack of soft skills is the biggest proficiency gap in America’s workforce.

This isn’t surprising. Most leadership development programs are not set up to provide the structure or support that enables real growth, especially in the area of soft skills.

Think about your learning and development experiences. Most of us have attended a four-hour seminar about how to develop a skill or participated in a professional development workshop. The main measure of success for those programs was whether you showed up and completed a form at the end of the workshop.

These approaches might be efficient and cost-effective, but this isn’t the way we learn and grow. Episodic learning programs focused on transferring knowledge about a specific leadership skill, especially for soft skills, just don’t stick. In fact, studies show most people forget 90 percent of what they learn during a single training session within one month and 60 percent within just one day. Even multi-phase leadership programs don’t provide the reinforcement required for real behavior change.

Leaders must be developed, not just trained. Soft skills are complex; they take time to develop and require daily practice, guided experimentation, personalized feedback, constant reinforcement, and reflection in the context of work.

Agencies need a new model for leadership development in the workplace—one that has the ingredients that enable meaningful growth and can scale to support all managers, from executives to frontline supervisors.

About the Author

Damian Vaughn leads program development at BetterUp with an eye for hitting on the inner work that it takes to aspire beyond one’s own limitations and, with grit and resolve, achieve success. His deeply credentialed experience in positive developmental psychology, secured after an NFL career, has afforded him the opportunity to coach and consult for global companies and elite athletes. Damian founded the Vaughn Center to develop leadership and positive social impact of executives, business owners, and athletes. Prior to BetterUp, he worked as senior vice president of human resources at HBO Latin America and as director of organization development at 21st Century Fox. He is also a clinical professor at the University of Oregon.

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