In study after study, organizations report their leadership development programs aren’t accomplishing their objectives. At the same time, more than a third of business leaders lack confidence in the effectiveness of their programs and suggest that the return on investment is less than expected. Managers and employees alike respond to survey queries indicating dissatisfaction with the format and content of the learning opportunities being offered to them. So, what’s the solution for organizations that want to strengthen leadership capacity by developing their people?
There are many potential solutions, with varying costs and time commitments required, but the biggest impact will be found by those organizations that engage business leaders and operations managers as they build leadership development programs. Leadership development programs need to be responsive to current business concerns as well as aligned with the strategic direction of the organization so that over the long-term leaders are prepared to shepherd teams to desired results.
If organizations can get leaders to agree on what matters most, it becomes easier to share a vision that guides everyone towards the common goal. Shared vision and common goals are as critical to effective leadership development programs as it is to achieving business objectives because, in both situations, leaders who ‘get it’ will help their team to get it and once the team gets it, you’re at least halfway to the desired outcomes. That kind of vision-goal awareness empowers individuals to see that their work contributes to the organization and how their learning impacts their work.
One of the biggest challenges for leadership development programs is that managers often question the value of training they receive. When managers fail to apply what they learn, it’s often because they don’t have the context to realize why the training matters to them and to make the connections between the classroom and the workplace. Part of addressing this challenge is for organizations to help managers see learning and leadership development as processes that occur over time, and to dispel expectations to they will ‘get it’ all at once while encouraging ongoing continuous progress.
Having a competency framework that outlines desired skillsets at different levels and reflects proficiency on a continuum gives organizations the ability to define areas of focus and content for leadership development programs. Ideally, the competencies that matter to leaders are the same competencies that matter for effectiveness at all levels of the organization so that everybody is following the same roadmap. To summarize, competencies provide a shared set of goals and expectations for an organization.
For individuals, a competency framework provides context for assessing what they’re good at, and what they need to improve on so they can focus on those learning areas. Very few people are good at everything and having a progressively matrixed competency framework helps individuals to recognize their strengths as well as make decisions about those areas they need to develop.
From an instructional design perspective, leadership development programs should be easy to access and easy to follow. A variety of offerings that will appeal to different needs and varying individual appetites will gain commitment across the organization. Allowing individuals to tap into more and less formal learning opportunities empowers them to make choices that benefit their self-interests and benefit the organization.
Individuals need context to make sense of what they learn so it’s important that managers and individual contributors understand “what’s in it for me” to make the “organizational why” more meaningful. Participants need to understand how what they’re learning relates to what they’re doing in their day to day practice. The 'why' refers to what’s in it for me, what’s in it for my team, what’s in it for the organization?
After training, learners need reinforcement that includes opportunities to apply what they’ve learned and reflect on their practice. For this reason, coaching is an essential component of leadership development programs that work. A good coach helps the learner make the connections to see what they’re learning and how it matters – it doesn’t matter if the coaching is 1-1 or 1-many, the coach is positioned to reinforce lessons learned and assess what else is needed so the individual can keep moving forward.
To increase the odds of successfully achieving organizational goals and meeting the expectations of leaders, leadership development programs can and should be purposefully designed. Know what you’re looking for so the organization gets what it needs. HR and business leaders need to know what the end looks like (success!) so they can ensure that individual participants in the leadership development program know what’s expected, can assess where they are on the competency continuum at any given time, and figure out where they’re going.
In summary, for a successful leadership development program, define learning broadly so that every experience counts and is part of the roadmap set out for individuals in the organization to follow. Make leadership development available to all, and foster a culture that expects everybody’s best will show in the results. Recognize that leadership development mostly happens outside the classroom and put the supports in place to encourage individuals at all levels to take ownership of their own development. Help leaders develop their skills by making them comfortable with asking for help and create a culture where leaders want to help one another.
References / Further Reading
Future Trends in Leadership Development, Center for Creative Leadership, 2014
Gen Z and Millennials Collide at Work, Future Workplace and Randstand, September 2016
Turning Potential to Success: The Missing Link in Leadership Development, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Armani, Harvard Business Review November-December 2017