Can leadership development really create great leaders?
- 30 May 2018
What makes a great leadership development programme?
For many years, organisations have struggled with the question “what does a great leadership development programme look like?”. Whilst smaller organisations may have yet to invest in a formal leadership development curriculum, it only takes a quick look inside Britain’s successful major blue-chip organisations to see that leadership programmes are wildly inconsistent in their content, delivery mechanisms, and in how success is measured.
But why are so many organisations getting leadership development wrong?
Hundreds of books on leadership development are published every year. And every business school offers its own take on leadership. It’s apparent that there isn’t a simple answer to the question “what makes a great leadership development programme?”.
In British history, Churchill presents the perfect example; the ideal war-time leader who then lost the General Election immediately the war was over.
Leadership development fads come and go – the Heroic Leader, Leader as Servant, Authentic Leadership and so on. But at 3GHR we believe that the lasting definition of an effective leader is quite simply that they are a person who can deliver exceptional results through other people.
Leadership development is not about a training programme. Instead, systematic leadership development involves helping people with leadership responsibility to understand their own leadership style, and their motivations, skills and ability to affect change. With this knowledge, leaders can build a team that are all working to the same set of goals. Great leadership, therefore, is more about nurturing and coaching, including succession planning, than it is about a specific set of skills.
Why we don’t have enough good leaders
Many organisations fall into a leadership development trap.
An example of this problem would be an organisation that is looking for a new Head of Marketing to lead the marketing function. When looking at options for this role, a business typically starts by looking internally at the best person in the marketing department. This ticks lots of boxes. It promotes people from within and shows that career development is possible within the business. The problem comes when every leader is promoted in this way. When this is all the company does, the business is presented with two problems:
- The person promoted into leadership may be a great manager. They are also likely to be technically an experienced and competent marketing person. But are they a great leader?
- The marketing department is now lacking a great manager and technical expert – the person that excelled in this role has been promoted into leadership. So the first job the new leader has to do is to fill their own shoes, and quickly.
Where is leadership development in this situation? Arguably, the new leader has been set up – not intentionally, but as a result of some pragmatic HR decision-making – to fail.
This is the first problem: knowing when to develop leadership skills, how to identify those with leadership potential and how to manage promotions to leadership positions.
Where does the responsibility for leadership development lie?
It is the job of every leader to develop leadership skills and competencies in themselves, as well as in the team they build around them. However, this is only a part of the leaders’ job, as they must also be focused on delivering the core business activities, tasks, budgets and customer satisfaction. As leaders move up the organisation it is imperative that they continue to develop leadership skills such as coaching, nurturing, mentoring and delegation in the others around them.
The failure of this crucial task can – and does – derail careers.
Over the last 20 years, we have helped people who have previously failed to make the transition from technical expert to a leader through people. We have also seen immediate payback from resetting this mindset. From massive reductions in attrition to significant increases in market-place performance, the results are immediate, tangible and sustainable.
To enjoy these benefits, leaders need to create an environment that encourages other leaders to grow and develop. Those who encourage direct reports to consider leadership skills as important as technical skills benefit from the “multiplier effect” that occurs when people are working towards a common goal.
This is the second problem: leadership development responsibility is to often delegated to HR when it needs to be nurtured by leaders themselves, within departments and functions at every level.
The importance of subject matter experts to leadership development
Some people are simply not happy being managers or leaders. These are often the brightest, most technically competent people in an organisation. Think engineers, designers, strategists, product development experts or finance experts.
When organisations offer and communicate a clear career path that involves moving into management and then leadership, this can alienate the very best subject matter experts in the organisation.
In terms of leadership development, it’s vital that there is a clear and highly rewarding career pathways for those that do not want to – or do not have the aptitude to – develop leadership skills. It’s also critical that those already in leadership roles recognise and value these subject matter experts (or SMEs).
By surrounding themselves by experts, these leaders have the potential to develop their own leadership role, and to communicate to other potential leaders and team members that subject matter expertise is something to be celebrated.
This is the third problem: career pathways that celebrate management and leadership potential, but that cause subject matter experts to be cast into roles for which they are entirely unsuited.
What is the best approach to leadership development for your organisation?
Often, organisations muddle up leadership and management development skills. This, in turn, leads to people with a set of management and leadership competencies nicely documented on the LMS and other HR systems.
But this “tick box” training – whilst it can be engaging and relevant on the day – does not create a culture where the people with the best leadership development skills and greatest leadership potential can thrive.
For leadership development to be truly successful, it needs to be part of a systematic change programme throughout the business.
3GHR works closely with organisations to create a systematic approach to leadership development. We work through the multiple levels within a business to generate the momentum for sustainable business change. Our approach to leadership development involves working with senior leaders to develop their coaching and mentoring skills, then working with intact teams to nurture individuals with the potential to grow, cascading knowledge and understanding through the organisation.
How quickly can a leadership development programme make a real change in a business?
There are two levels of change.
- Changing a leader’s perspective on how to lead is an instantaneous thing. In the single moment when a leader fully acknowledges that the best way to achieve their own objectives, and to make a lasting impact, is to develop the people around them, this opens the door to immediate behaviour change.
- A measurable improvement in business performance can often be seen in the first reporting period following the leadership development intervention. When a leader is responsible for a significant workforce and budget – sometimes worth £millions – a small change, cascaded quickly, can have a huge impact.
For example, great sales directors tend to be wonderfully skilled at developing productive, mutually rewarding relationships with their clients and prospects. But for many, they rarely think to invest the same level of time and expertise to develop their own internal teams. Sales teams are often highly competitive, and so knowledge, understanding and learnings are not always shared. Shifting this culturally is a challenge for any leader. But making that change is highly rewarding, both for the individual and for the organisation.
As long as it is part of a systemic change initiative, we find that even a one day or bite-size leadership development intervention where we target a specific set of skills has immediate impact. Giving people walk-out skills that can be used in the business right away is a crucial success factor.
The mindset is key to this development and only when the mindset shift has happened and the leaders’ eyes are opened, can people truly learn and develop.