When my children went to primary school, I recognised some of the input they were receiving from my first management development course ten years previously. By the time they were in secondary school they were being taught the same things I was seeing in management and leadership courses at the time. The people entering our business from school and university today receive training in the first three months on some of the things we used to reserve for more experienced people.
I see no general improvement in leadership performance despite a reported annual spend of $356bn on global training programmes. It seems to me that the rate of evolution in the provision of leadership development is slower than the pace of change in the business environment it seeks to serve. A brief look around the market place shows me precious little innovation and no real attempt to tackle some of the long standing problems we’ve seen for decades:
- We acknowledge that the best learning is an interpersonal activity but flying people around the world to be together is unpopular (‘I’m too busy’), expensive and slow. A learning management system, no matter how social or gamified, is not the way to learn the complex social skills leaders need.
- Since Aristotle, we’ve known that practice is the most effective way of learning but we create a laboratory in a classroom or an action learning set and, at best, support it through post-hoc coaching in the ‘real world’.
- We appreciate that context is all, but we persist in educating a view of ‘best practice’ and leave leaders to tailor it to their environment on the hoof. When they fail, we question them rather than the models we’ve provided.
- We understand that organisations are complex systems and preach the value of role modelling. But we continue to throw training at leaders in systems which inhibit success and ask them to report to leaders who don’t behave in the way we teach.
- We demand that leaders address problems in our organisations with urgency, but run programmes that last for months or years driven by bulky competency models created in the past by asking the wrong people the wrong questions.
- We anticipate the need for more leadership at all levels in the organisation, but we limit development to clunky career stages, effectively rationing development to a privileged few and perpetuating a Talent Management process that fails. Every year.
The emotionally intelligent, intuitive, adaptive and facilitative leader we think we need can’t be developed through a model that was developed when we needed them to follow and give instructions. If modern leadership is manifest in individual relationships, as I believe it is, here are some alternative design principles to build learning for leaders:
- Make it genuinely experiential. Put it in the workplace, inside a real event, and in real relationships with people, not in the classroom with a scenario and a text book.
- Make it about who you are as a leader, not about what you do. Focus on purpose, values, authenticity, resilience and the tools that facilitate them – reflection, peer coaching and mindfulness.
- Make it life-centric, not work-centric.
- Make the psychology you are teaching applied, not abstract. Make it real by being real.
We have experience with new leaders where we pair them with a coach for three months or so starting immediately before moving into role and covering their first 90 days in it. At the end of that cycle we work with them and their teams to co-create the values and ways of working they all subscribe to. The people we put in the room to support that learning are skilled in creating the psychological safety which encourages vulnerability and honesty, adept in identifying group dynamics and flexible in responding to what they experience in the room.
As coaches, they have the listening, observing and questioning skills to draw out the personal learning. As functional leaders in a commercial HR organisation, they have the tacit knowledge of the business to see what works.
Here are two fictional examples based on real events.
- ‘Graham’ is a recent alumni of a leadership programme with a key module on change. He’d done exceptionally well through the programme, so I was curious to be on the receiving end of a presentation from him reporting significant difficulty with the adoption of an internal application and witness the bafflement of some of my Board colleagues who felt they should have been involved but clearly weren’t. In conversation the following day, it became clear that Graham had approached the implementation without deploying his change leadership learning because he felt the project was insufficiently complex and his project was suffering as a result.
- ‘Danielle’ is scheduled to join the next iteration of that programme and will go through the change module in nine months or so. An HR colleague encouraged her to group a number of current planned changes into a single programme and engage in a number of sessions to plan and execute the leadership of the change. Present throughout, her HR partner coached her before and after the events, contributed selected thought leadership into the events and worked with the team in creating an honest and inquisitive environment with genuinely shared ownership. The team were asked to capture their learning in logs throughout and when I came to review what they had written, I felt as if I was reading the learning objectives from the change module in the leadership programme.
Eight people in Danielle’s team, regardless of status or hierarchy, received the same input as Graham and they’d received it in a context that made immediate, real sense to them. None of them had spent a moment away from their workplace and we’d not spent a penny from the L&D budget.
What if we were to repeat Danielle’s experience with other teams on the financial planning cycle? With customer events? With operational team meetings? What if we were to drop the classroom and focus the input in the place where the work gets done? What if we were to manage leadership development in the emotionally intelligent, intuitive, adaptive and facilitating way we’d like our leaders to demonstrate?
This might just be a smarter way of developing the leaders we want to see at the pace we think we need them.