In today’s ever-changing world, organizations are looking to transform themselves in order to stay competitive and be future-ready. In fact, Harvard Business’ 2018 State of Leadership report (download required) found that, of the organizations studied, 86 percent reported to be undergoing some state of transformation. One of the key drivers of an organization’s ability to transform is its ability to develop leaders who are strategic, agile and resilient. The more the learning and development of senior management is leveraged as a strategic tool, the better equipped companies are to transform.
According to Training Industry, in 2019 alone, companies spent approximately $370 billion on leadership training. The offering is wide and the field ever-expanding. However, research, surveys and experts such as those from Harvard Business Reviewand McKinsey & Company warn that, despite the huge investments, the majority of these programs fail to deliver the results that were hoped for.
So what is going on? Why is it that despite all the talent, research and energy put into this field, we are missing the mark when it comes to up-skilling and increasing capabilities of leaders? Understanding ways in which we can make leadership development programs a strong tool in driving performance and leadership capabilities is crucial, particularly given a world in crisis that is hungry for leaders who are both competent and inspirational.
In my work with clients, I have seen some of the pitfalls as well as the effective approaches of the process. Here are my key insights:
Learning and development must become a critical driver of business strategy.
We all know that training is only one part of a broader transformation process. As such, it must be explicitly and firmly embedded within the strategic imperatives of the organization. It is a company’s business and competitive plans that determine not only where it wants to go, but also what actions are required of the organization both on the structural and talent level. A key action is ensuring that leaders grow and develop in ways that support organizational growth.
Today, there is often a disconnect between how well senior managers think they are doing this work and how their commitment is viewed down the line. Unfortunately, too many L&D initiatives are viewed as being in the domain of human resources and entirely their responsibility. Rather, it must be the senior business leaders’ priority to show visible, authentic growth and learning in order to attain business results.
We need to look beyond skills and competency building and include the deeper foundations of mindset and cognitive agility.
Being a great leader today means having a learning and listening mindset. It means being flexible, having the humility to understand where you need to learn as well as the connections to make this happen fluidly. In short, it’s about being able to deal with disruptions to the market and to your world views with grace and poise.
The problem is that it is very hard to sit with the discomfort of having to change to do the deeper work of personal transformation. Development programs are great at offering new information or perspectives, but not as great when you need to wrestle with the uncomfortable questions that come from challenging yourself in order to change or grow.
When we go to the gym and work out, often we feel the “burn.” We physically feel the pain. Yet we know that this is the way forward. If we want to build strength and resilience and learn new ways of moving, the pain is the absolute correct response of a healthy body. But when we look to grow as leaders, we tend to shy away from difficult or uncomfortable conversations with ourselves and we don’t want discomfort while we stretch to grow. Nonetheless, if we want our leaders to grow, we have to push them to work more deeply on themselves.
Training must be integrated into everyday work rather than being completely separated from it.
In my experience, even in the most interactive classroom situation, very little of what people hear and understand is actually retained when back at work. That number goes up when you are action-learning, but information still does not become fully ingrained.
The key is to build clear and sustained means of bringing the learning and insights from the classroom and group discussions back into each participant’s real work, to integrate them and follow up to see progress. Often, that also means recognizing that the needs and learning experiences of each participant is different and you must personalize even group sessions as much as possible. The more we become learner-focused and tailored, the more sustainable the growth.
One way to do this is to focus on two or three key skills or competencies that (based on deep analysis) would allow your organization’s leaders to perform better. Rather than offering a broad mix of skills in a course, focus on diving deep to transform a few critical behaviors. What will really move the needle in your organization? Listening skills? Coaching skills? Feedback skills? By getting rid of the noise around different models, frameworks and practices, participants focus on getting a few things consistently right.
As we try to make sense of uncertain times both behind and ahead of us, great leadership can be a game-changer. Companies that undertake leadership development programs that carefully choose the key skills and mindset required to make real change, align the programs to enhance business strategy results and integrate individualized at-work action learning will find that their leaders continue to grow and evolve to meet new needs.
As first published in Forbes.