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:
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.