As a Learning & Development Leader, it can be challenging to see the barrage of articles on what is wrong with leadership development and why it doesn’t work, often with little or no suggestions on how to do things differently. Yet the importance of strong leadership and a deep leadership bench continues to be a priority in high performing organizations. Leadership guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” There are five critical areas to address to be successful in creating the future for leadership development in any organization.
Creating the environment where leadership development will thrive
Leadership development initiatives must have the full support and sponsorship of senior leaders within the organization. In addition to the requisite financial investment in leadership development, sponsorship is needed to ensure that participants will dedicate time and effort to their development. If leadership development is seen as anything other than a business imperative, it will fail. According to research by the Center for Creative Leadership, leadership development improves bottom-line financial performance, improves the ability to attract and retain talent, enables strategy execution, and increases success in navigating change. Sponsorship cannot come from HR or L&D but must be from the business. Even with all the research pointing to the obvious value in it, it’s very easy for a leader on Tuesday at 10am to be “too busy” to attend leadership development. The moment that becomes acceptable, the program will fail. Without the commitment and involvement of business executives, it will be impossible to drive meaningful change and create a culture that values leadership development.
Crafting leadership development programs and tools that are integrated with the business
To make leadership development truly effective, it is crucial to ensure it is integrated with the company culture and woven into the daily work activities of its leaders. Sending a leader or leaders away for a leadership program, regardless of how good it may be, without contextualizing it to the company’s culture and values is doomed to fail. While at the program, that leader is with people from other organizations and perhaps experiencing breakthroughs. Upon return to the “day job,” with no effort to contextualize the learning, map it to the company competencies and values, or to aid in the application of the learning, the value will trail off rapidly. This is why the best companies will contract to create custom solutions from scratch or at least create bridge programs and tools to tether the external experiences to internal anchors to maximize retention and application of learning. Taking this a step further, the very best programs will build opportunities for learning and growth within the context of the leader roles and responsibilities. Learning should not be seen as a separate activity but rather something that happens in the flow of work. A leader from finance or engineering, for example, will get much more out of leadership development if the program applications tie to the “day job.”
Customizing and personalizing the approach to leadership development for the participant
Recognize that leaders have different development needs based on their roles, experience levels, and individual strengths and weaknesses. Gone are the days of sending dozens, if not hundreds, of leaders to a one size fits all workshop on communication skills. Such a cookie cutter approach bores anyone with any skill in the subject matter while baffling anyone new to the role or the practice. There are numerous ways to ensure the approach is customized and personalized. Leveraging breakout groups by skill level, crafting different roles for participants where seasoned practitioners act as coaches, or simply crafting are just two simple ideas for moving the needle. Offering customized development plans and resources that are specific to each leader’s needs will allow them allowing them to focus on areas that are most relevant and impactful to their growth while increasing the likelihood of the overall success of the group.
Providing just-in-time learning tools and resources
Provide leaders with access to learning resources and support at the moment they need it. Regardless of whether leadership development is offered in person, virtually, or asynchronously, the bottom line is that participants need to be able to access the learning support they need the moment they need it. In a world where information is at the fingertips of participants via mobile devices, and technology continues to blaze new trails, it is imperative that leadership development keeps pace. These tools and resources can include, but not limited to, on-demand training modules, coaching, or mentoring sessions, AI tools, peer support networks, message boards, or even blogs. By offering learning opportunities in real-time, leaders can immediately apply their new knowledge and skills to their current challenges, and not be hampered by carrying binders everywhere they go.
Gathering, reporting, and acting on continuous feedback for improvement
Putting so much energy into the first four steps for successful leadership development can be daunting, and it may be tempting to short shrift the system for evaluating impact and improving programs over time. It is critical to establish mechanisms for continuous feedback and improvement in leadership development efforts. Regularly seek input from participants, their leaders, and their direct reports to understand what is working well and what needs adjustment. This 360=type of feedback loop will help refine the approach and ensure that leadership development remains relevant and effective, while providing a powerful narrative for executives to strengthen investment in and commitment to leadership development well into the future.
Building meaningful leadership development is straightforward but not simple. The single biggest mistake anyone can make is failing to recognize the fact that leadership development requires a systemic and systematic approach. By adopting such an approach, one of which is outlined here, will help ensure that leadership development is built on a strong foundation and woven into the fabric of the organization. By following this approach, the organization’s leaders can learn and grow in a way that is meaningful, relevant, and aligned with the demands of their roles, and the company will be more successful because of it.