In 2019, U.S. corporations spent nearly $83 billion on employee training and education. However, this investment rarely improves organizational performance, a reality experienced by many companies and explored in the Harvard Business Review article “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It.”
The failure of training as a change strategy stems from several factors, ranging from ineffective educational methods to corporate environments that undermine the implementation of training concepts. Another culprit lies in the fact that many training programs, particularly those focused on leadership development, emphasize the wrong skills. Nearly two decades into the 21st century, the majority of leadership training relies on concepts established more than a century earlier, when the automobile and radio represented cutting-edge technology.
This article explores the skills—and underlying approach—that distinguish modern leaders.
Shift in Mindset
Most programs in leadership development emphasize skills to help individuals manage the employees who report to them. These courses are based on outdated management systems that depend upon vertical, authority-based leadership. Such a program is designed to help a sales manager, for instance, learn best practices for leading a sales team. This type of specialized training can be beneficial, but it won’t help leaders succeed and thrive in today’s complex, collaborative environment.
In identifying and evaluating leadership training programs, organizational development (OD) and human resources (HR) professionals need to look for options that address the horizontal nature of modern organizations. Most business processes have become cross-functional, requiring close collaboration from multiple teams. Not only is it impossible for a single leader to have all the best possible answers, but it is also unlikely that one person will have authority over all participants. Successfully leading teams without control demands both a shift in mindset and the attendant skills to support this paradigm.
In today’s environment, effective leadership depends upon mutual partnership instead of authority, and the required skills—which focus on relationship management and collaboration—reflect this fundamental change.
Even though most organizations continue to operate under authority-based management systems, the cross-functional nature of modern workflows creates opportunities for employees at every level to serve as a leader. This situation, in turn, offers OD and HR professionals new possibilities for shaping leadership development programs. Hands-on training in the following areas can have far-reaching benefits throughout an organization both in productivity and in employee engagement and satisfaction.
- Self-Empowerment. Even in companies where leadership stems from authority, control remains an illusion. The old model of empowerment focused on leaders empowering other people. The new model focuses on individuals empowering or controlling themselves, regardless of what lines appear on an organizational chart. Specifically, people can control their attitudes, beliefs, words, tone, body language and, most importantly their actions. Adopting a positive outlook helps people see potential opportunities, even in uncomfortable situations. In a leadership role, self-management—or being an empowered adult—involves staying open to possibilities and turning one’s sphere of control inward, choosing to act in a way that benefits the team and the organization as a whole.
- Partnership-building. Modern leaders need to excel at building partnerships, win-win relationships between empowered adults, in which both parties are equals. Reliance on partnerships represents a dramatic shift from traditional business relationships, where one party wields power over the other—such as a customer over a supplier, a manager over a direct report. Shifting to a partnership removes resentment and engages both parties in finding the best possible solution.
- Effective communication. Not surprisingly, communication skills have become more important than ever. Leaders need to master the art of conveying information—online and in-person—with colleagues at every level of the organization. Open, honest dialogue plays a key role in building trust and establishing partnerships; it also determines the success or failure of accountability systems. Communication helps create a culture of success at the start of a project, as both parties agree upon scope and deadline. Maintaining open dialogue throughout the endeavor keeps team members informed and allows early intervention when problems do arise.
- Flexibility and agility. Today’s world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Leaders can no longer rely on past approaches to navigate present conditions. Instead, individuals must be able to analyze challenges with an open mind and make decisions under rapidly changing circumstances. Then, they need to implement, assess, and adjust those decisions on the fly. By developing training programs that allow participants to practice personal adaptability in increasingly challenging situations, OD and HR professionals can groom leaders who excel at managing complexity.
Many organizations believe they practice collaboration when they actually follow a directive, or authority-based, approach to project planning. The process starts with a project leader soliciting input from team members. She creates a plan and presents it to the group for feedback. Then, she adjusts the plan and issues individual assignments, based on their collective efforts.
True collaboration, however, involves all team members in planning and gives ownership to those individuals. Together, they work through a structured process to arrive at a consensus, supported by commitment. Today’s complex environment requires leaders who can guide teams using collaborative methods.
- Team-building. A leader’s first job is to build a high-performing team. Hand-picking a number of stellar individuals doesn’t guarantee that they will work together well. The leader sets the tone and establishes the culture of the team in the initial kick-off meeting. Team members are asking themselves, “Am I going to have a say? Is this going to be worth my time? Am I going to get along with these other people? Will this be fun at all?” The team leader answers these questions by her actions in the first one or two meetings. Moving forward, the leader manages group dynamics and builds trust through honest communication and meaningful commitments that support the team.
- Facilitation. Even the most skilled individuals do not have all the answers. Consequently, leadership training needs to reflect the fundamental shift from command-and-control to facilitation. Successful leaders apply the full talents of the team to the task at hand by engaging each member in the co-creation process. Team leaders guide group members through structured collaboration whereby they determine the best possible decisions to solve problems, create plans, and produce deliverables through consensus.
- Visionary guidance. Often, cross-functional initiatives break down because the individual functions focus on their specific contributions. By facilitating co-creation, team leaders help members see their responsibilities in context, whether as part of a project or a company-wide strategy. Painting the collective vision together puts everyone on the same page and allows teams to create an integrated plan to achieve the desired results.
- Shared accountability. Less of a skill and more of a mindset, shared accountability recognizes the need to optimize the collective results over individual performance. The co-creation process helps individuals see how each deliverable affects the other team members while securing consensus and commitment upfront. Each member is accountable to the team as a whole, while the leader has individual accountability for team performance. Everyone sinks or swims together. This proactive approach keeps everyone focused on the shared goal.
The concept that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” attributed to Aristotle, remains as relevant as ever in today’s interdependent environment. The mutable modern world calls for leaders who can create and harness the power of high-performing teams. Moreover, the collaborative, cross-functional nature of today’s business processes allows employees at all levels to serve in leadership roles. As a result, OD and HR professionals have an unprecedented opportunity to effect long-lasting, widespread change with programs that teach leaders to maximize team performance through facilitated collaboration.
Jason Myers is a Principal with the Matrix Management Institute and is on a mission to help people transform their organizations into more innovative and collaborative environments. Check out his Ultimate Guide to Cross-Functional Collaboration here.