The thought of leadership development programmes may conjure up many different images depending on our experience; stately homes, colourful boards, intense self-reflection bordering on therapy or role play that make us all feel a little bit silly. I have had the privilege of attending some excellent leadership development programmes but what I mainly remember are the people. Sometimes it’s the speakers, experts or facilitators if they have had something particular interesting to share; I remember an economist sharing some outlandish predictions of our future and world-scale developments that would impact our global financial systems – that was in 2007 and a year later the whole thing came tumbling down, but his detailed analysis coupled with expert storytelling made the unbelievable seem believable. What did I learn, what did I develop? Possibly nothing that has been actionable.
Often, it is the other participants I remember. These events are a great way of meeting people who occupy a professional space that’s ‘similar enough’ to you but offer a completely different perspective, either based on their experience or area of expertise. It is expected that you have similar reasons for being there and so for many people it is a healthy place to find common ground and debate different views. Through that, you might learn quite a lot, but it is accidental. I do not know that I have ever been accepted onto a leadership development programme based on a compare and contrast with other potential participants. It is not deliberately shaped around that; the programme is designed around content and hopefully some learning objectives, possibly intended experience, but rarely, if ever, is it about the blend of people.
Now we find ourselves in 2020, with 2021 fast approaching, and the impact of a global pandemic coupled with a realisation that you don’t have to spend a weekend in the countryside to develop some new leadership skills has pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of leadership development programmes. However, the need to develop leadership skills and behaviours still exists, so how are we going to shape leadership development going forward? What are the new vehicles for engaging in this type of learning and how do we engage in leadership development in a way that is effective for businesses?
Is leadership developable?
To start with, we must ask whether leadership is something that can be developed. Still today, you see explicit reference to natural leaders, those who are born to be leaders and an underbelly of ‘you either have it or you don’t’. Even implicitly, we pedal the same narrative, judging leadership potential on prior behaviour or historical demonstration of ‘who we are’ rather than what we can learn and how we can develop.
This narrative of leadership remains highly individualistic. We see leaders in the public eye glorified or vilified for their leadership as if it were the substance that defines who they are with minimal reference to the specific circumstances or analysis of their intent, behaviour and consequences. In the public domain, we tend not to analyse leadership but rather provide more generalised commentary that you are either a great leader, bad leader or simply not a leader at all.
If we walk ourselves back from this brink and objectively look at leadership as an organisational attribute, it is a distinct set of skills and behaviours but nonetheless a set that can be defined and individually learnt. There are arguably hundreds of very specific leadership skills and behaviours – not categories or types or clusters, but single skills or behaviours – and I would welcome anyone to identify which of these are cannot be acquired or improved with some conscious effort to learn. Of course, the complexity is in developing more than just one and being able to use that skill or behaviour in the right circumstances, but at the heart of leadership is still a definable set of attributes that any human being can develop.
This is coupled with the fact that in most businesses, there is not just a single source of leadership but several people from whom others can take their leadership. In addition to the formally appointed managers within an organisation, employees may have good reason to follow others who compel them to trust and have confidence in their direction. If business leaders can identify where leadership is already taking place, then they may also find that is a good place to start developing ‘the right kind of leadership’ for their business.
Why is leadership development important?
I ran a short working session for Small Business Saturday a couple of years ago called ‘Leadership Development – who really cares?’ so the fact that I am still writing about leadership development shows that I think it’s important and that I believe leaders of businesses of all shapes and sizes should care.
If we return to our base definition of leadership, it is contextual, relational, has a destination and is a shared process. We refer to leadership as a team sport in any organisational setting and at its core is determining and driving the purpose, values and direction of that organisation. Without any form of leadership your team may not know where they are going, how to get there or how to make decisions along the way.
For me, that speaks for itself in terms of the importance of leadership and, whether you focus on leadership development or not, leadership is happening. However, if you believe that leadership skills and behaviours cannot be developed then you are wholly reliant on hiring people who already have the type of leadership your business needs. So what happens when your leadership needs change? For all the ways in which your business environment changes, so too will your leadership skills and behaviours need to change and believe me, it is not practical to simply hire another leader on this basis.
It may be that hiring someone with specific leadership skills is the right thing to do at a particular time, but rather than leaving your leadership approach to chance, or a one-off hiring cycle, there is value in being more deliberate in developing the attributes that are going to drive your business forward in the right direction.
Goodbye, leadership development programmes
Traditional leadership programmes have been the backbone of a multi-billion leadership development industry for the past 20-30 years. The acceptance of leadership as a critical component of business success has seen businesses that can afford it put hundreds of thousands of people through structured, event-based programmes hoping these leaders will become more effective at delivering the levels of performance expected of their team, department, division or company. However, there are many flaws with this, not least in the selection of the most relevant programme.
- The celebrity spotter. There are people who pick leadership development programmes based on who the provider is or who the guest speaker is. Of course there are some programme providers who do a world-class job and there are some speakers who are worth paying just to listen to … but these types of high-cost leadership development programmes are unlikely to be effective if they are based on personalities rather than quality or substance of the content. The return on investment is questionable if the programme contents are likely to be as widely appealing as the brand delivering it because by their nature, leadership development programmes that attempt to cover many different things will not be targeted at the 1-2-1 issues that really need developing.
- The referral. ‘I know someone who went on a leadership course and they said it was the best one they had been on, so I signed up to go next month.’ What?! How do you know their development needs were anything like your own? What did they learn that was relevant for them, that will also be relevant to you? How do they measure the effectiveness of their learning and how are you going to determine how that translates into being effective for your own learning? What impact were they looking for and how likely is it that your business will see the same impact? So many questions but this happens ALL THE TIME. Possibly not on the same budget as our celebrity spotters but resulting in a similarly dismal ROI.
- The self-critic. It is common for leaders who are self-aware to consider their development needs along the lines of skills and behaviours that they feel are lacking. I am not great at singing, so I could take some singing lessons. I do not know how to speak Italian, so I could prioritise that next year. If I wanted to be able to sing in Italian then this would make perfect sense but in the context of Blackmore Four, that’s probably not going to move the dial. Rather than dwelling on all the things that I could improve, I need to carefully reflect on which things are important for my business and be more realistic. I need to be better at writing articles and it’s important for my business that I can share content, expertise and opinion in this form, so I should invest in developing my ‘influence through writing’ skills, not try and learn a new language that won’t affect my business. Taking this further, it does not make sense to go on a leadership programme that might, for two hours on day 3, focus on communication skills.
Most people are comfortable with the logic of a learning/training needs analysis but more often with leadership, we focus on needing to be good at ‘all leadership’, which I would argue is unrealistic and likely to lead to limited return on investment.
With so much potential to spend money on programmes that do not address the issues in front of you, it is only a matter of time before these generalised, event-based programmes are a thing of the past.
Hello, leadership development
If you are now doubting whether leadership development is in fact worth spending time and money on, then consider whether any the following apply to your business:
‘We are going through significant change and need different leadership capabilities for this.’
‘The current climate is impacting our performance; we need some specific leadership skills to turn this around.’
“We’re expecting further change in the future and need to develop an approach to leadership that will navigate the unknown to maintain our success.’
The decline of traditional leadership development programmes does not signal the end of leadership development. If anything, our understanding of leadership has improved to the point that we can invest in a more focused, targeted way to improve an organisation’s collective capability and utilise leadership behaviours and skills most relevant to our environment.
At a time when the business environment is both challenging and rapidly changing, we look to leaders who can navigate these times by behaving in a way that invokes trust and who have the skills to adapt with the world around them. This is unlikely to be a single, great leader or limited to the people who carry out the so-called leadership roles. SO, leadership development needs to achieve the following:
- Be more specific. Design and deliver leadership development on content that is aligned with the specific leadership needs of the intended recipient’s business. Embrace the move to more targeted, locally relevant content.
- Be clear about the intended impact and tackle learning with that in mind. Spend more time thinking about how a participant will learn and deploy new skills and behaviours. Continue to push for action-based or action-oriented learning.
- Be more tailored to individual participants. Leverage what we know about learning styles and formats to design leadership learning that works for individuals. Use our differences as the basis for creating bespoke solutions.
- Be flexible in format and structure. Supply leadership development in a way that recognises it as a perpetual, ongoing process. Use technology and our knowledge of human behaviour to help people learn, use what they have learnt and evaluate the impact.
Where do we start with leadership development?
If you are looking ahead and have some concern about your business’s leadership capability or just don’t know if it’s the right capability to take your business forward, then now is probably the right time to consider how to get leadership development right.
- What are you trying to develop? I have written previously about leadership needs analysis and leadership assessment; identifying the specific skills and behaviours relevant to the future of your business and objectively assessing your current leadership capability will provide you with a much clearer set of leadership development objectives and the basis from which to design or select relevant development.
- What is the best way to develop that? There are many ways leaders can learn new skills and selecting the right learning format is dependent on both the what and the who. The combination of content and audience should be understood in determining format rather than shoe-horning people into predetermined programme structures.
- Who should be participating? Leadership is typically a collective effort and so too, therefore, should be leadership development. If you have 5 key skills that as an organisation need some work, then we should be smart about who needs to invest in developing which skill based where the greatest opportunity is and on the chances of a participant being able to put the newly developed skill or behaviour to good use.
- How do the participants learn best/how do we evaluate impact? This requires some knowledge of the participants learning preferences or styles. Listening, speaking, reading and writing are still the world’s best vehicles for education but doing is likely to help understand the extent to which a new skill or behaviour has been developed. Evaluating impact is not necessarily about assessing the development activity or even the participants learning, but their ability to do something different that has the intended results.
Leadership is critical, especially in times of highly unpredictable conditions and a business environment that is going through significant change, regardless of the source of that change. Leadership development programmes, however, have become obsolete and even more so now we come to terms with a world in which we question the need for physical presence and social contact. Leadership development has adapted but there is still a general wastage of time and money being spent on overly generalised solutions that value commoditisation over customisation. Now is the time for business leaders to demand more targeted solutions based on clearer and more specific identification of their development needs.
Blackmore Four offer specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business. Contact us to find out more about our workshops on leadership needs analysis and assessment or to discuss how best to apply this to your business.