Why leadership development fails to make an impact

Posted 08 April 2014 by
Ben Vernazza, Senior Consultant, with Lorraine Mills, Head of Consultancy at OPP
Businesswoman writing key leadership concepts on a wall

I work with many companies wanting to improve their leadership development, and time and time again I hear the same challenges voiced. That is, previous leadership development initiatives have not actually delivered better leaders, and they want to try something different. In my experience, many programmes fail to meet their objectives – and all too often it is assumed that as long as “we are doing something”, it must be working.

Firstly, I don’t believe that you can simply train people to be good leaders. I’m not about to suggest that people are either born leaders or not; but rather that people can develop their leadership capability if they understand where they are currently; if they have the capacity to progress; and if they are motivated to change and have opportunities to grow.

With so many conditions involved, where does one start?

As resources for leadership development tend to be in short supply, a good place to start is to consider whether energies are being focused on the right people. Sometimes companies move individuals into leadership roles based on their technical competency, or they confuse good management skills with leadership potential. Bright and colourful fish may catch the eye in the sea, but any chef will tell you that some of the tastiest fish are lurking on the sea bed, out of sight. Whilst it is easy to identify great performance, it is much harder to spot true leadership potential. This potential is a combination of ability, engagement and motivation. There is no magic formula, but it is certainly not just a case of looking at current performance.

Of course, it is not possible to just sheep dip people and turn them into leaders, but that doesn’t stop some companies from using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Many programmes fail to take account of individual differences, and instead there is an unhealthy obsession with behavioural competency scores or generic learning techniques, which may work for some, but not for all. To get a deeper understanding people’s drivers, you need to consider their unique personality, cognition, motivation and learning preferences. Providing a framework for potential leaders to reflect on these factors should be an integral part of any leadership development initiative.

When I’ve spoken with aspiring leaders, they often struggle with a common issue. Following an intervention, they set out with good intentions, but when they are in the workplace they fail to put their new skills and insights into practice. The key is to acknowledge that leadership development does not just happen in a classroom or workshop. It needs instead to be conceived as a long-term initiative, with the right balance of theory and application back in the workplace. Organisations need to ask themselves: do we have a culture that is genuinely supportive of our developing leaders?

One way of doing this is to proactively provide on-the-job opportunities for individuals to apply learning from training in their everyday work, not just leaving them to sink or swim. Providing a support network so that they can share experiences with their peers can further accelerate leadership development, build collaboration and reduce feelings of isolation.

Leadership development should certainly not be passive either – ie a process that individuals are subjected to, but cannot shape. Without a personal commitment to growth or any long-term accountability, potential leaders may just stagnate or become a caricature of themselves, and end up derailing.

Finally, in my experience, many companies are in the dark when it comes to evaluating the impact of their leadership development. They either assume it is working, or they focus on irrelevant metrics; they may even be anxious that they’ll find out something they don’t want to know, and simply avoid the issue. There are a number of ways that effectiveness can be evaluated: measuring changes in behaviour via 360-degree feedback; employee engagement surveys; career progression; retention of talent; and concrete financial return. Looking at happy sheet scores from an event just isn’t enough.

Leadership development doesn’t need to be a minefield. There may be no better time than now to hold up a mirror to your own company’s process and ask some fundamental questions: Are you developing the right people? Are you customising the programmes to the needs of each leader? Do leaders own their development path? Are you providing developing leaders with the opportunities to apply their learning at work? It’s only then that you’ll begin to understand the genuine impact of any intervention. After all, leadership development is not a just about a one-off or series of events. Individuals will have different journeys to make, and there are many routes for them to arrive at their destination.

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