Organizations increasingly understand that their chances of successfully implementing an innovative strategy will be quite slim without a strong leader leading the change. Accordingly, corporations invest in a wide range of leadership development programs – an estimated $50 billion annually, according to a recent McKinsey report, “What’s missing in leadership development?” However, as you can see from the report’s title, most of these programs fail to produce their desired results as many corporations continue to plateau, their leaders frustrated and unable to work toward their goals, their frustrations shared by the teams they lead. This is not good for corporations, their leaders, or their employees. This is not good for anyone.
Training: It’s just not working
Today’s leaders need many tools to help them lead or manage their increasingly complex organizations and, in fact, ever more of these sorts of tools are available. They have been designed to help leaders respond quickly to new challenges such as global digitization, rapidly advancing technologies and fierce competition. Contemporary leaders also arrange their own continuing education programs, arranging external trainings, participating in webinars, tuning in to TED talks, and following the achievements of men and women they have identified as gurus.
Theoretically, leader effectiveness and performance should be improving. But it is not, as testified to by the leaders themselves and their subordinates. Of the more than 500 executives McKinsey polled in 2016, only 11 percent agreed with the statement that “their leadership-development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results.”
What is going wrong? Are leaders simply unable to translate the knowledge they acquire into day-to-day practice, or is the knowledge they gain too far removed from reality to be useful? Or, perhaps the problem lies in companies whose structures, habits and processes are so stuck in concrete that even the most ambitious leadership development projects cannot overcome the organization’s inertia.
But things are not hopeless. The respondents to the McKinsey survey identified four fundamental factors that will lead to both the organizational and personal success of any leadership program.
1. Leaders need to know the priorities…
One key consideration raised by the respondents is the organization’s ability to translate its strategy into a leadership model. In other words, the organization’s priorities must be clearly identified in consultation with leaders. This will help them act in ways that reflect the organization’s most pressing needs and thereby increase their chances of success. To me as a leader, the ability to agree on and understand objectives is essential. To help my organization succeed, I need to know its key aims. I also need to know whether, for instance, its priority at a given time is to support acquisitions or organic growth. An effective leadership program should provide me with such knowledge.
2. But so does everyone else
Another key success factor for leadership programs is their reach. The ideas they provide should not be disseminated exclusively to leaders. A good leadership program should extend across many levels of the organization. Only then will it create an environment that encourages people to embrace change. A leadership development program whose reach is broad will help leaders by helping the people who work for and with them understand better the intentions behind their actions.
3. Get out of the classroom
The effectiveness of leadership development programs hinges largely on the methods employed to spread learning throughout the organization. Rather than fitting leaders into the old teacher-student model, sitting in a classroom, it is far better to leverage case studies and real-life situations from their business practice. This will allow them to place any newly-acquired knowledge in the context of their daily tasks, helping them to see its relevance. An effective leadership program should work to reduce the distance between theory and practice. The technology available to companies should make this possible. After all, there are so many channels that can be used to bring curricular content to leaders.
4. Embracing change
Organizations should assure their leaders that they are prepared to make the changes that emerge organically from their learnings. This, after all, is the whole point of an effective leadership development program, and a key to innovation: allowing leaders to deploy the ideas developed in their training to effect organizational change – that is the desired outcome of the training. Consequently, the organization should be ready to relax or alter its established models if it wants its leaders to feel their participation in a leadership development program is truly meaningful. There is nothing more frustrating for leaders than having to admit to co-workers that the process they are all involved in is at bottom a charade.
What I want from leadership programs
My experience has made me deeply aware that the success of the organization I am leading is a function of multiple factors. I know that no program no matter how well conceived, executed and supported can produce effects within days or weeks, and that program failures are not to be blamed solely on individuals, a misguided organization model or a wrong approach that I myself am taking. Management is the total of complex factors. Hence, my success results from dozens of critical decisions that I must make within specified time limits.
I want leadership programs to point me in the right direction – one that my organization wishes to follow. I do not need or want to be given detailed instructions on what to do; all I need to know are the organization’s priorities. Once I know them, I will be able to adapt individual tools and draw appropriately from my prior experience and knowledge.
For an effective leadership program to work, I need to be able to meet my closest co-workers, be willing to share my newly-acquired knowledge with them and demonstrate my enthusiasm for what I’ve learned… and show them that I am free to build on those learnings within the organization. The key to managing an organization is to continuously exchange ideas and have mutual dialogues among people who are open to both listening to others and freely expressing their own beliefs.
Finally, I believe that an effective leadership program involves constant coaching which allows me to discover what is best in me and the people who work by my side. Such a discovery can eventually allow me to feel that my goals and those of the organization are largely, if not perfectly, aligned.
For a leader to feel this way, an organization must replace hierarchical management models with ones based on the free flow of views and ideas. I could gladly subscribe to any leadership program that is centered on people and their involvement in building a company’s values unconstrained by history, habit or outdated processes.