According to data from the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board, nearly 95% of learning organizations either plan to increase or maintain their current investment in leadership development. Meanwhile, TrainingIndustry.com says that leadership training is $366 billion global industry. High-growth organizations are focused on improving their talent, and that means enhanced programs for emerging leaders. Yet data provided by McKinsey offers a startling insight into the leadership industry: most of these leadership programs fail to create desired results. What’s keeping leadership out of your organization – despite the best intentions of management (and management consultants) to turn the tide?
With an estimated $166 billion annual spend on leadership development in the USA alone, organizations must transform these mission-critical programs to create real and lasting impact.
According to a recent survey of 28,000 business leaders, conducted under the guidance of Chief Learning Officer magazine, leadership development is a high-touch, in-person effort that focuses on soft skills (as opposed to certification training, or skills-based instruction). Seventy-four percent of organizations use instructor-led leadership training, and 63% use executive coaching, to deliver on the following top-rated leadership skills:
- Improving coaching skills (a priority for 34% of respondents)
- Communication (31%)
- Employee Engagement (27%)
- Strategic planning and business acumen (21%)
- The soft skills of leadership are critical to advancing the organization (as well as advancing the careers of those who aim for the C-Suite). So why aren’t we better at delivering leadership programs that work?
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That question is the focus of a McKinsey study, that cites four critical areas for potential failure in leadership development training.
- Context Conquers Content: While most leadership development training programs emphasize content, it’s really context that matters most. The McKinsey study cites a “one size fits all” mentality of most training programs. Assuming that a particular curriculum or leadership viewpoint fits for every company – regardless of size, culture, or current leadership structure – is often the first mistake. Overwhelm is the real challenge here: in an effort to prove their value, leadership development consultants often try to offer a Chinese menu of leadership insights, based on their work (instead of the context that looks at the work of the company). The challenge for leadership development? Having the clarity to offer the two or three things that matter most to the organization, not just the 46 things (or 21 irrefutable laws) that look like leadership.
- Too Much Reflection, Not Enough Application: in my book, Leadership Language, I ask the question: where does leadership really come from? Without tying reflection to specific action, leadership initiatives are lost. Because leadership doesn’t come from a guru, or team of gurus. Leadership comes from one place, and one place only: inside of you. A program that forces participants to reflect on Warren Bennis, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs might be useful for understanding what others have done before. But consider this: knowing all of the rules and history of boxing isn’t going to help you when you’re about to get punched in the face. Leadership, in this context, is a verb: discovered in action and demonstrated in application. What Steve Jobs did is impressive, and informative. But what you are going to do, right now for your team, is what really matters. Connect concepts to current events, and tie ideas to action, if you want a leadership program with real impact.
- Underestimating Culture: The McKinsey study points to mindset as perhaps the most dangerous enemy of successful leadership training programs. For consultants, coaches and even in-house leadership training programs, preparing to battle the mindset within the organization can be the deepest challenge of all. Why? Because, without receptivity, revelations can’t occur. Transformational leadership initiatives, on an individual or company-wide basis, always start at the same place: where you are now. Do you understand the deep-rooted beliefs about how things work, within the organization? What are the preciously-held beliefs of the C-Suite that make change an uphill battle? I’ve written about the need to look beyond mindset in order to find true innovation. Chasing a mindset – or clinging to one – is not a recipe for new ideas. No leadership training program can truly succeed unless the organization is willing to look beyond these seven words: “that’s the way we’ve always done things.”
- What Gets Measured Gets Done: How do you know if your leadership initiative was a success? Understanding the behaviors that are measured, and how to quantify soft skills, can be a challenge. Unfortunately, without measurement tools in place, there’s no way to know the business impact of your leadership investment. If you want to see the success of a leader, don’t look at her. Look at what her team is doing. If folks are leaving the organization, or trying to find ways to work for someone else within it, there’s a leadership disconnect. Consider monitoring the career progression of program participants, and using evaluations to identify the implementation of new skills. Another useful metric: employee turnover. A successful leader is always building or retaining a powerful team. A successful leader creates more leaders. Looking at the leader’s team, observe who is getting promoted, moving in to new divisions, and successfully taking on new responsibility. The best leaders help others to achieve things they didn’t think possible. Who’s creating new possibilities, within your organization? Soft skills like communication, persuasion and commitment can be measured – if you know where to look.
High-growth organizations can maximize their investment in leadership development by focusing resources on what matters most: developing a customized leadership program, based on your organization (not the consultant’s). While experts might argue that the components of leadership are the same for all, leadership development doesn’t work without a clear context and cultural understanding. Otherwise, the program is simply a curriculum: a course that assumes that every company in the world needs to begin at Chapter One. Leadership is often a personal journey, and it always starts where you are. Not where your consultant thinks you should be. Without the right context, and a willingness to understand the mindset or culture of the company, even the best-intentioned leadership programs will not stick. Innovative companies understand that an investment in employee development requires connecting concepts to real work; that context is the most powerful predictor of leadership development success.