Leadership development is not up to par

A while ago I posted up some thoughts on what a standard leadership course looks like in 2013. I purposefully didn’t add any commentary to it, as I wanted to see what the reaction was to it.

I’m actually not so concerned with the content side of things. What I’m concerned about is the development mindset we think we must put our leaders through.

Here’s the thing. We want our leaders to succeed. So we say to them they need to go on a course and in most cases it will be an external provider. Typically a course is 3-5 days long, and will provide the necessary skills. They may go back for a one or two day follow up. It’s done. You’ve been invested in. You’re now better. If you’re lucky it’ll be accredited or certified in some way and you’ll get a badge. We all love a badge.

There are plenty of very good and very useful different ways of looking at leadership development, and leadership needs. There is no way of knowing which of them is better than the others, and, indeed, if they are complementary, if they are in conflict, or if they are just rubbish. There are also a good many provider of leadership development who all have very interesting angles on takes on the topic, and again, there’s no way of knowing who is better, and why you should select one over the other.

The other day David Goddin asked a really good question on Twitter about the explicit outcomes we link to leadership development. I argued that this never happens, and all we can manage are expectations.

If we develop an internal programme, we have more flexibility about the content, the delivery mechanisms, and even the facilitators. If you’re really lucky it’ll be accredited or certified, because we all love a badge.

So what about those outcomes then? How do we make them explicitly linked to leadership development?

The problem is, there are too many factors which could change or improve performance to hinge it on a development programme. My issue sits more with the fact that we as L&D think a course or programme or other intervention is the solution at all.

I’m currently mulling over whether 360 is actually valuable in terms of leadership development. It serves to increase self awareness about how you impact others, and there is plenty of research that provides clear indication of leadership competencies, but what do we do if someone is able to move their scroes on the 360, but they still are poor leaders?

What questions do we start to ask? Were the objectives SMART? Were the expectations made clear? Was the development and support provided not helpful? Is the person just not capable?

And what of coaching as an intervention? Surely if we are looking to improve performance, coaching is the best solution? Although, I get the impression these days that coaching is a replacement for a form of counselling as opposed to actual performance improvement. Do we therefore need to build a coaching culture and upskill managers to do this? What if they are trained in these skills but still aren’t capable or able to improve the performance of their teams? Was this a failed intervention?

And then there’s all this stuff about social leadership. Leaders need to be active on social network channels in order to better connect with and engage with people at work. If they don’t then we get all suspicious and cynical about their motives. Not every leader should be on these channels – especially if they’re not naturally a people person.

Which brings me back to wondering what is the right approach for leadership development? Currently, I’m guilty of this same thinking. I’m about to embark on a programme of activity to train 180 managers in management skills. They’re going to be sheep dipped the poor lot. This isn’t my intention, and I don’t think it’s innovative, but it will do the job, and in all likelihood will achieve desired expectations.

Let’s push this boat out.

Leadership development, I believe, cannot be measured with hard explicit outcomes. You can set clear expectations. But it is too much of a hop, skip and a jump to claim that revenue increased by x% because the Chief Information Officer went through leadership development.

What I also believe is that leadership development is currently not challenging enough or robust enough to deal with the challenges facing businesses and organisations across the work landscape.

I believe that for leaders to have successful development, we need to completely re-think the purpose of the development, and therefore the delivery mechanisms. Coaching, training, facilitation, self-driven learning, mentoring, psychometrics, e-learning, and a whole host of other methodologies are at the disposal of any dedicated learner. What I don’t know is what we’re missing.

This is a call to all L&Ders concerned with leadership development. Here’s what I’m telling you – what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Here’s the challenge – I don’t know what good enough looks like.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

19 thoughts on “Leadership development is not up to par”

  1. I like the challenge posed by this post. I’d add another layer though and consider a re-examination of what expectations and purpose leadership serves in business.

    1. I think it’s a natural pairing. If we have leadership and we’re clear of the purpose of having them, then at some point they will need development. That development then needs to be focused on clear needs and the right support. That’s the piece I don’t think L&D has given enough thought to.

  2. Great stuff Sukh

    When you try and measure stuff strange things happen and targets often inadvertently become our purpose! (we did it, we trained everyone…so what!!!)

    And even if we can measure an improvement, you are right, it could be down to all sorts of stuff – not just the intervention!

    We seem desperate to measure stuff because its not comfy to realise that not everything of importance can be measured and training and development is one of those things that isn’t easy to measure.

    But we know that improvement comes from practice, practice, practice…and we know the sort of things we want our leaders to be good at so get them to practice trust, practice listening, practice dealing with emotions, practice giving feedback, practice helping, practice creativity…practice practice practice.

    When asked the benefit of spending big bucks on training Demming said “You’ll never know…You’ll never be able to measure it. Why did you do it? Because you believed it would pay off.”

    We know what we want, we have a hunch how to do it, we have to get brave and go for it…we need to stop waiting for the measures

    1. I think you’ve helped to clarify the approach we need to take for development. You’re right, practice of skills is paramount. That’s how we get better at most things.

  3. HI Sukh,

    I sympathise with many of your sentiments on the current state of Leadership Development and have personally reviewed many in-company and supplier leadership programmes and frankly there is a dearth of diversity, innovation and new thinking. The better programmes had some of the following:

    – A 360 with associated coaching, great comment about counselling and if it is to be present then I prefer the Challenging Coaching (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Challenging-Coaching-Traditional-foreword-Whitmore/dp/1904838391) approach where the coach has difficult conversations and pushes the coachee to set ambitious goals and challenges on behalf of the client (move from person -centred) who pays the bill!
    -learning reflective practice skills- many people don’t have these skills, therefore for learning to ‘stick’ we should give them the tools to practice reflection and develop action plans
    -A robust assessment – the sheep dip rarely changes behaviour if it isn’t linked to outputs e.g. the assessments should have both an organisational and personal benefit
    -An organisational leadership philosophy that underpins the programme- often dressed as behaviours but when people are plugged back into the system the existing culture enveloped them again. A recent survey we conducted with CEO’s has implied that middle managers fail in realising their vision for a learning organisation 😉

    Would love to discuss in more detail and explore the ‘unknown unknowns’.


    1. Conor this is a great and really useful addition to the discussion here. I’d like to pick up some more thoughts.

      I really like the Challenging Coaching approach, and need to read more about this. Yes, though, what I get the sense of is that coaching when done internally can lack a robust approach. However, I am aware of very successful internal coaching programmes such as that at Siemens.

      Reflective practise seems to me to be the challenge of L&D. How do we help people learn this skill? Modern technology means it’s more easy to do now than it ever has been. I wonder if it’s about how practitioners understand and therefore promote it.

      Personally I’ve found that when we’ve had clear leadership behaviours, or even organisation behaviours, it becomes easier for people to connect to what they need to do.

      1. Sukh,

        We, generally university provision, put a reflective practice component into all of our corporate programmes. It is often misunderstood at the outset with delegates wanting to go straight to concepts if leadership, however they always appreciate it on completion of the programme.

  4. Really interested in following and contributing to this discussion, need time to think through my response properly but a couple of initial thoughts and reactions:

    Measurement obsession is a problem – so agree with Sukh, many factors contribute to an improvement in leadership ‘performance’ – the best organisations I have worked with have had faith that its a good thing to do!

    Individuals who are leaders are capable of knowing the personal impact of a leadership development programme and should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own development, including knowing which elements to participate in (or not).

    A mix of elements to choose from is therefore important and starting with some robust diagnostics helps each leader ‘plot’their journey through a programme.

    Sukh, I understand that you have to provide a sheep dip, however I also know you will do your utmost to create a great learning environment – good learners will make the most of any opportunity.

    In my experience, breathing space from hectic work lives, an opportunity to build a strong peer network and stimulation of some different thinking are some of the biggest benefits of providing a leadership development programme.

    And there’s more, but I need to go and deliver a ‘Leading the Team’ workshop!

    1. Mags, I really appreciate your comment.

      It’s the thing about the mix of elements which I think is the key. How do we help learners to truly understand how to make the best of what support and development is available to them, and thereby giving them the right development they need.

      You’re right about leaders accepting it’s a good thing to do, and I don’t doubt that faith. What concerns me is there has to be more than just faith that we pin these things onto. Leadership competencies are aplenty, but where’s the hard data that says without those your company will fail?

  5. Sukh, I found your comment “I don’t know what we are missing” interesting. Was that missing any other tool, or how all these tools and methodologies are applied?
    If its tools we have enough, its probably more how they might be delivered. So for instance a great take on 360 is to have a continuous crowd sourced feedback application that I have come across. If its in the delivery, then maybe thats a simple as how we do stuff. I have a client who is amazed that I can do 3 days without powerpoint, but thats a trivial thing but maybe its not!!

    The subject of measurement is more interesting. I came into this world from an engineering and production background. Making packing lines run faster to chuck out jars of tablets or boxes of strepsils and toothpaste. So I guess I am driven around outcomes but I dont measure to death. I do believe that you should measure inputs. If you do the right things, then the output will be better, and I had constant battles in my production days that we focussed too much on measuring outputs in manufacturing rather than inputs. Measuring outputs is too late!!

    So applying this to learning, I think its simple. If you change behaviour (input) then all things considered and allowance made for external variables outside someones control their output should be better.
    Measure behaviour. Simples!!!

  6. Great debate here. All this stuff annoys me as much as you I can assure. Trouble is so few people have really thought this all through. Particularly the L&D professionals! So many go for the sheep dip, the competency framework or any line that appears to have ‘scientific proof’ (witness the rise of the neuro-coach!)

    You raise so many points. Lets stop for a moment. Go to the core. What do we know about leadership? Not a lot! a century’s worth of academic research and we cannot yet even universally agree a definition on what it is. Drucker and Bennis both challenge the notion that human beings can even be led at all!

    The bottom line is that human beings are relentlessly complex, different, individual. How can anyone tell another what they should do?
    Socrates stated: ‘I cannot teach you anything, I can only make you think!’
    The role of the L&D professional is to make the other think!
    How good can you be? What’s stopping you? What you going to do about it?
    Through questions you ensure that you do not remove the responsibility every individual has for themselves (Whitmore)
    The biggest opportunity organisations have is to release the brainpower of their people (Neuroscientific research estimates 20 billion neurons in the brain – what potential for learning)
    Learning and growth never has to stop. (Look at Clint Eastwood for example)
    The L&D must help people ignite inner drive and show them how they can grow.
    This is what should be measured!

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