Why waste your money on leadership development?

Would you rather be led by, Barack Obama or Donald J Trump? I can pretty much guess the answer for most of you! So what is it that attracts you to one, and repulses you from the other? Your immediate visceral reaction is a lot to do with apparent personality, manifested through the media: the thoughtful versus the bully; the calm versus the brash; the sympathetic versus ego driven. I could go on!

In many ways, this conversation is the exact opposite of the one we should be having about leadership development. It implies the leadership is essentially personality-based, that there is very little we can do to make the bully more sympathetic, or to turn brash into thoughtfulness. We make instant decisions about who we would like to be led by, and our actual managers are allocated by the luck of the draw. We can do nothing. But that is a pretty bleak picture, but one that is common and driven by lived experience. I have yet to meet a single person who has never encountered poor leadership, and I have met many who have had absolutely terrible experiences at the hands of the incompetent, the ego-driven or just plain nasty people. Stick them on traditional leadership programmes and they may return reinvigorated, but behave identically to the way they were before. No wonder the greatest cynicism around learning and development is reserved for leadership programmes.I want you to consider five points that might help you change your mind. The first is that we should forget about developing leaders, and focus instead on developing leadership. There are only three different letters in those two words: leaders and leadership but they encompass a completely different worldview. Leadership is owned by the whole organisation, it is about frameworks and behaviours that are driven across the whole company, not a focus on an individual. Leadership is a philosophy and approach that involves everybody. Most people who are leaders are also led. At the very heart of an organisation are the people who do not necessarily have direct reports, but impact all of those around them as well as customers. These people need to be good followers, and they, too, need to manage themselves, and be driven by codes of behaviour and values that determine what they do and how they think about their role.Secondly, we all have to believe that we can eradicate appalling leadership by applying a consistent framework across the whole organisation that has no exceptions from top to bottom. You cannot have a well-led organisation with some people who do the job brilliantly, and others do it hardly at all. And if there are no exceptions, there have to be sanctions. Every single person from the CEO down has to realise that their behaviour impacts on everyone around them, and they know what they should do and how they should do it. I hope you can see from just these few words, that what I’m proposing is much more complicated than simply selecting a few individuals and sticking them on a course, fingers crossed, and hoping for the best! Sticking plasters do not work; and certainly not in something as important as leadership development.Thirdly, creating great leadership throughout an organisation is a long-term commitment that does not change just because times get hard, or tough choices have to be made. it is a philosophy and approach that is consistent hard work from recruitment through to retirement. The rewards are clear: hyperactivity, better engaged workforce, more innovation and hugely more commitment.

Behind all of that is one simple but enormously complex word: trust. Good leadership emerges from a culture of trust, trust is the fundamental building block of good leadership. And as we know, trust is hard to build, but very easy to destroy. Can you imagine being led well, by someone that you did not trust. It is inconceivable.Fourthly, the idea that great leaders can thrive in toxic organisations, is as mythical as imagining that one great leader can fix a terrible environment. Poor leaders are attracted to toxic organisations in the same way the good leaders are repelled. Therefore, the idea that ignoring leadership development, makes very little difference in terms of overall experience, is false. It is only by constantly keeping leadership under review that consistent leadership survives. This includes not just sanctions for poor leadership but the reward for good leadership. In other words there have to be significant incentives to encourage people to put in a lot of effort and hard work into leading well, paying attention to others, and helping the organisation become more effective.Finally, the main thing that good leadership development does, is raise the level of debate about what works and does not. It turns everybody into conscious leaders, and demands core behavioursthat may come easily to some people and be a struggle for others. The best leaders spend time reflecting on their own leadership, consulting others on how well they do, and making attempts to get better week-on-week, month-on-month, and year-on-year. Those kind of leaders see leadership as a collective responsibility that requires discussion and sharing of issues. It leads to the establishment of higher and higher standards, that are agreed and consistently acted upon. When it is expressed like this, it seems easy, but it is hard to create a space to focus on leadershipduring a busy working week, where many other responsibilities impinge. But that is what the right leadership programmes do, they ensure that leadership is taken seriously, leadership is owned across the organisation, and leadership is implemented consistently. There are lots of key stages for building good leadership development; far more than I can share in this short article. If you want to debate any of the issues raised here, come to my session in the Learning Technologies conference at Olympia on February 1st and 2nd. If you are intrigued and want to know a lot more, then read my new book called Building Leadership Development Programmes that Work.

It is published by Kogan Page, and if you buy it from their website, and add the code ”FRIENDSOFNIGEL” at checkout, you will get a 20% discount, and free postage andpacking. We need to talk more about leadership, and we should engage more around the issues and the significant consequences of poor leadership. I hope this article get you moving in this direction.

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Why Leadership Development is Important!

There is something rotten in the state of leadership development. It is a colossal industry; often the biggest budget line in any L & D programme. The Corporate Research Forum estimates annual expenditure on leadership development exceeds $50 billion. It is a massive worldwide operation and is growing strongly. Yet discontent with what that investment in leadership delivers is rife. Boththat CRF survey, Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends ( 2015) and the Marshall School of Business ePulse survey reveal a widening gap between the investment, the expectations that the investment promises, and the overall confidence of CEOs in the leadership capability in their organizations. It would seem that as investment grows, so does dissatisfaction with the quality and durability of those leadership development programmes. The enduring value in organizations seems to be hard tofind and poor leadership abounds at every level.

But these statements conceal a contradiction. On the one hand I have seen people complete a leadership programme full of enthusiasm, and fired up to change everything as soon as they got back into the workplace, yet within two weeks, they returned to doing exactly what they had been doing before attending the programme. Did that make it a huge waste of money and effort? Or was the chance to think and step outside the day-to-day inherently beneficial. Maybe the changes were not radical and far reaching, but small and evolutionary. Over time good things would happen. Maybe just discussing issues around being a leader was beneficial in itself. Airing the difficulties, even if they were hard to resolve, perhaps, had some merit.

That was not my only experience, however. I also met people who had been transformed by a specific leadership programme. I witnessed organizations changing before my eyes under that influence, and people changing because now they got it! They saw what they had to modify in themselves, and in the organization with a new clarity. And there was something powerful about a leadership cadre who worked together, tackled problems as a team, and presented a united and consistent front to the world. I did witness people, who simply blossomed and grew in the rich soil of great leadership development. Clearly leaders made a difference, and some leadership development worked well. Things could change but not often enough and with, apparently, no consistency.

So, if most leadership development does not work and it is too hard to put your finger on thecriteria for success, perhaps, ultimately, it is better to save your money and make investments elsewhere? There are consequences, however, if you do nothing. I also witnessed at first hand the ruinous waste of human talent caused by leadership incompetence, and the unhappiness and frustration of staff who felt marginalised, ignored and brutalised by the regime that they worked under. I hated the self-seeking leaders I met who nakedly demonstrated to the world that it was all about them and their compensation. They took a really short-term narrow view of their role and their performance, and then moved on, leaving the chaos for someone else to sort out because they had a distorted idea of what leadership meant which focussed on delivering short-term targets whatever the long-term consequences What made the difference? Were there any common factors that made some leadership programmes work whilst lots of others failed to deliver? I discovered that there were a whole raft of success factors and sharing these will be the subject of the next two articles.

If you boil it all down to the essence of the job to be done, in an uncertain and complex working environment, our leaders are path finders but they only require a small number of competences to become effective leaders. None of this is complex and none of it is secret. McKinsey researched what leaders needed to do to be effective in 2015. They surveyed 189,000 leaders from 81 diverse organizations in over 40 countries around the world. Their conclusions were that there are four key leadership competences and making them part of any approach to leadership singles out the effective leader from the ineffective one. The four are:

Be supportive

Operate with strong results orientation

Seek different perspectives

Solve problems effectively

It is obvious, that, even if you accept that the McKinsey analysis is accurate, stating these behaviours is one thing, developing them, and building them into a consistent leadership culture is avery different challenge But it is a good start.

The McKinsey article is sets out its stall in its opening line: ‘Telling CEOs these days that leadership drives performance is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe’ (McKinsey Quarterly, 2015). It is axiomatic that the vast majority of CEOs would want their leaders to be supportive, operate with a strong results orientation, solve problems effectively etc. That is the hope and expectation that fuels so much leadership investment. The quality of leadership, and the impact that leaders makes on an organisation – good and bad-is amplified to the point where the success or failure of the organisation can often be at stake. Leadership does makes a difference.

Here is my first conclusion: all leadership development requires context. And many generic programmes offer generic solutions that are impossible to translate into specific situations. To illustrate this I will share a true story.

I was flying to Australia a couple of year’s ago and fell asleep. Not unusual when you are flying for 26 hours! I awoke in a darkened cabin with all the blinds down. I had no idea where we were, and equally no idea how long I had been asleep. Planes take away that sense of time completely. I could have been asleep for hours or minutes and I wanted to know which, hoping for the former and dreading the latter.

I did not want to switch on the light and wake myself up completely and I could not read mywatch in the dark so I switched on the TV screen in front of me to check the flight path. If I knew where the plane was, I would know how long I had been asleep. Simple really, but when I touched the screen, all I could see was the small image of the plane in the centre of an entirely featureless blue and yellow landscape. The information provided was, although completely accurate, completely useless because it was context free. I took a picture of it for posterity. It was a perfect image of something being correct but useless in terms of interpretation. Where was the data to makesense of that information? I needed some idea of scale, coupled with a few reference points that I could recognise. With scale and reference points I would have been able to work out where I was and therefore how long I had been asleep. Much leadership development is like that. In itself, accurate and perfectly competent, but lacking the context to turn it into the real issues: ‘so what do Ido now? Who can help me? And what happens if it goes wrong?’ And above all: ‘how can I make this work in my situation?’ If you have no answers to these basic questions then it is unlikely you will change your behaviour or the leadership development will have a lasting impact.Leadership development has to be profound and inclusive and reach deeply into the workforce. It is clearer than ever now that what leaders do is seen by everyone. This means that good leaders can build great organizations. And good leaders emerge from great organizations and what they do is share insight, and attempt to make sense of the world in a way that others can understand and react to. My next seven conclusions about how to build leadership programmes that work, follow in article two.

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The Learning Challenge

Nigel’s latest book, The Learning Challenge, helps practitioners to make sense of the impact the latest developments in this area are having on the learning function in their organisations. It has been written to be a core part of any learning leader’s toolkit.

To support the launch of the book, we have created a set of resources that sit alongside each chapter of the book. You can access theses resources, and buy the book, here. (

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Create a Learning Explosion 1: Prepare for Take Off

Published in: Inside Learning Technologies & Skills, Nov 2011

This is the first of three articles that explain how to create a learning explosion in your organisation. Most workplaces only exploit a small part of their potential for learning but with the right ingredients the result will be an explosion of activity way beyond the sum of its parts. Over the next three issues Nigel Paine will guide you through the preparation, launch and sustaining phases. So stick with him and enjoy the ride.

Download PDF of full article: Learning Explosion part one: Prepare for Take Off

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Create a Learning Explosion 2: Launch

Published in: Inside Learning Technologies & Skills, Dec 2011

This is the second of three articles in which Nigel Paine explains how to create a learning explosion in your organisation. Last time you were prepared for take-off. Now it’s time to launch.

Download a PDF of the full article: Creating a learning explosion: Launch

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Create a Learning Explosion 3: Staying in Orbit

Published in: Inside Learning Technologies & Skills, Jan 2012

This is the conclusion of three articles in which Nigel Paine explains how to create a learning explosion in your organisation. You’re prepared for take-off. You’re launch- ready. Read on to ensure your trajectory leads to lasting change.

Download a PDF of the full article

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Spotlight: We shine the light this week on Nigel Paine

Published in Training Zone

Nigel Paine, former head of people development at the BBC, talks to about the evolution of the ‘people agenda’, and predicts technology will play a huge roll in learning.

Read the full article (you might need to create a free account)

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Attracting and Retaining Talent – Best Practice Strategies

Paper published by Ark Group.

This report examines best-practice strategies in attracting and retaining talent and shows how successful organisations are approaching the task of recruiting, retaining and developing their staff. it does not matter if you are a government agency in the US or a construction conglomerate in Brazil, how you get the best out of the people you employ is a key and common issue to all organisations.

Contents and Executive Summary

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Learning and development in 10 Years’ time

Published in Training Zone.

Power up your hoverboard, don your self-adjusting sneakers and hold tight to that almanac. Nigel Paine takes us back to the future of learning.

Full article on Training Zone

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Eight ways to become indispensable

Published in Training Zone.

Nigel Paine tells us the key to remaining relevant and vital in today’s busy marketplace.

Read the full article on Training Zone

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Learning lessons from West Ham’s relegation

Published in Training Zone.

A football team is like any workplace team except that their actions and talent are visible on the outside. Nigel Paine draws 10 lessons from West Ham’s relegation.

Read the full article on Training Zone

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