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Winter 2020
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CTDO Magazine

Measure First

Prove—and improve—leadership development's value.

Each year, organizations spend billions on leadership development. But according to a recent McKinsey report, only 10 percent of CEOs believe the investment is producing a clear business impact.

In the face of that sobering statistic, how do you improve the value delivered by your leadership development programs? And how do you prove that value to your organization's top brass?

The key is to change how you think about evaluation and measurement. Often, measurement is seen as an end goal—something that happens after a program is designed and launched.

You can't measure results until you've produced them, right? Wrong.

Use measurement much earlier in the process to help you plan and design your leadership strategies and maximize the likelihood of meaningful outcomes.

We've identified five strategies for using measurement to create and drive development initiatives end to end. Adopt all five to produce better results and prove it to your stakeholders.

Set your programs up for success

The best outcomes are generated when you use measurement tools before you design your program. This gives you clarity on where you are today and where you want to go, laying the groundwork for creating more effective development strategies and bringing them to life. 

Start with a needs assessment. Determine your organization's most important strategic objectives and the key performance indicators (KPIs) used to measure progress.

Analyze your present state using all the available data about your organization, culture, and leaders. Gather any new information needed to fill in the blanks.

This early analysis can help you explore possible links between your present state and your KPIs, get crystal clear on desired results, and build alignment around development strategies that can get you there. Capture your findings and share them with others, talking about desired outcomes and how they will be measured.

Make everything explicit. Now is the time to uncover any misalignment and false assumptions.

Use analytics to drive design

Too often, development teams design programs based on gut feel or on how their leaders stack up against broad industry benchmarks. Organizations, though, are as individual as people. For optimal impact, tailor your design to the team's precise needs and business strategies.

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To achieve this customized approach, some HR teams are turning to the same types of big data analytics that have transformed how businesses and organizations around the world operate. This sophisticated approach can help you quickly sort through large quantities of data and find otherwise elusive links between people data and important business metrics. You then can make better predictions about the specific leadership skills most likely to drive improvements.

For example, one manufacturing company used analytics to determine that turnover was influenced by senior leaders' communication and collaboration skills. Investing in a targeted development solution led to improved retention.   

Adopting such an evidence-based, data-driven approach can bring a powerful focus to your design. It sets you up to make smarter investments, pursue smarter learning strategies, and speak the results-focused language your executive team will understand and respect.

Pay attention to context

Context matters. Even a world-class program can flop if your organizational climate doesn't support and value development.

For example, engaging program participants is not enough to ensure the success of leadership development initiatives. To get the most out of your investment, research has found you need to engage managers as well, encouraging them to support their staff's development.

When you do, you can produce clear and sustained improvements that benefit both individual program participants and the broader organization they serve. Other important aspects of climate include how much support individuals receive from their peers, how senior leaders prioritize development, and how learning is rewarded.

Use measurement much earlier in the process to help you plan and design your leadership strategies and maximize the likelihood of meaningful outcomes.

Assess your overall climate for development to identify potential barriers up front. Explore whether your fellow senior leaders show top-down support for leader development and whether there is broad accountability for developing talent. Determine whether your company's culture promotes trust and empowers leaders to stretch, take risks, and try new behaviors.

If you find aspects of your climate lacking, your investments in leadership programs may not yield the results you need unless you address some of the broader issues first. Otherwise, you are simply putting a clean wrapper on smelly fish. And that means you will need to set realistic expectations about what leaders will be able to do differently within a context that may not support their growth.

A better solution is to use the climate data you've gathered to support change—framing effective messages and articulating the value of leadership development up, down, and across your organization.

Make informed course corrections

Recent RedThread Research surveys show that L&D organizations make extensive use of after-the-fact measures of leadership development. They tend to monitor lagging indicators that are output oriented, such as "spend per employee."

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It's time, though, for a fresh approach. Focus first on leading indicators that provide insights at a point when course corrections are still possible.  

Quick pulse surveys and assessments can help you investigate whether the learning strategies you've adopted appear to be on track. Try embedding measurement into the learning experience at key intervals along the way to determine whether participants feel engaged.

Explore whether learners are becoming more aware of how they can apply on the job what they're learning and how they can use their newly developed skills to support strategic objectives. Then use what you discover to fine-tune your learning strategies and produce better results, rather than being disappointed after the fact.

Measure your impact

Although leading indicators can help you course-correct, you still need evidence of the business results you're producing. Are your leaders bringing what they've learned into the workplace and supporting the business outcomes you're after?

Some stakeholders only want to know that leaders are learning and that behaviors are shifting. In those instances, it may be enough to measure postprogram learning transfer, behavior change, and the impact on leaders and teams. However, an increasing number of executives want to know whether those behavior changes are affecting business KPIs.

The best way to measure impact is to use the same science-based analytics that helped you design your program. It's the most direct way to answer questions regarding business impact.

How did improvements in certain leadership behaviors influence your organization's most important strategic objectives? Were you able to drive higher productivity metrics? Were you able to reduce costly turnover? Did you produce higher levels of customer satisfaction or reduce time to market?

By linking improvements in leadership to specific business outcomes, you will be equipped with compelling evidence when you're asked to prove the impact of your initiatives.


Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Sarah Stawiski is director of the Insights and Impact Group at the Center for Creative Leadership. Contact her at stawiskis@ccl.org.

About the Author

Stephen Young is manager of leadership analytics at CCL. Contact him at youngs@ccl.org.

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