Are leaders let down by design?

Navleen Girdhar
9 mins
June 15, 2020

The main intention of a leadership development program is to enable leaders to act their way into a new way of thinking and doing which supports an organization to grow. However, most leadership programs do not achieve this outcome. What follows here is why despite indicators of success, leadership programs fail, identifying barriers to success and highlighting how to overcome these barriers so that leaders are not let down by design.

The Narrative Fallacy

When it comes to training, development, and effectiveness of training, questions that have been asked from as early as 1950s are:

1. Does training change behavior?

2. How do you measure the success of a training program?

3. Why do training programs fail?

The reasons why some of these questions have been asked repeatedly and we continue to grapple with even today is because ‘at the time of the program’ everything appears to be ‘successful’. When it comes to leadership development programs, a few markers that appear to make them look successful include:

1. Capturing the pulse of the program. What are people saying as they experience the program. When we hear words like: ‘powerful’, ‘impactful’, ‘useful’ , we get a sense that the program will make the desired change happen. We hope.

2. Believing that knowledge will change behavior. When the content covers the concepts that are either buzzwords or help drive a stakeholder’s agenda, we interpret these two parameters in terms of high relevance but often in isolation of everything else.

3. Indicators of frequent and instant feedback given to the leaders during the program.

4. Measuring program effectiveness with the intention that enough data points will build the case around the success of the program.

5. A tangible action plan at the end of the program as an artifact that gives every leader a road map to achieve the desired change.

To summarize, most narratives seem to say, “Hey, we captured the pulse, there was relevant content, the leaders got feedback on their knowledge and use of skills, we measured the program effectiveness, and all our leaders have an action plan. It checks all the boxes. Now it is up to the leaders to demonstrate the change on ground zero.”

However, in leaders’ reality, little seems to shift once the program becomes a part of their lived experience.

The Design that Fails to Deliver

There is little doubt that the need and the intention to develop leaders exists as a top organizational priority because cascading effects of leadership growth pushes an organization forward. Development of leaders needs to be built into an experience that is linked to the ‘current reality’ which allows the leaders to learn, unlearn, relearn while reinforcing new skills and behavior patterns. To make progress towards that reality, it is time that we redefine what indicators of success for leadership development programs need to be. To do that let us look at 4 main barriers:

1. Themes matter: The relatedness of things

The themes of leadership development are often unrelated to strategic priorities and business outcomes. When learning strategy is connected to business excellence, a leader’s development gets tied into the story of a larger organizational impact. Without clarity and specificity of results it is hard to get a reality check and fine tune judgments about the path a leader needs to take to achieve the results. For example, if the strategic imperative for an organization is business growth then the leadership development theme needs to be tied to the strategic capability of leaders, instead of any other capability like that of people.

2. All that glitters is not gold: Content over context

When designing a leadership program, contextual challenges that arise within a leader’s reality are harder to address and easier to avoid. This is because the context is influenced by multiple internal and external sources and the ‘control’ exercised by different stakeholders in a leader’s context varies from case to case. Consequently, this sensitivity does not go into the design. Even the best of frameworks can fail to work if they are not relevant to a leader’s organizational reality. Subsequently, right from the start, the leaders are setup to fail not by intent but by design. A mere nod to their organizational context in the content during a leadership program makes it harder for the leaders to apply their learning from the program. For example, leaders in the same leadership development program might be peers and still be immersed in different contexts. One may be focused on client engagements for a new product through improved quality of early client engagement, while another on building a business case and ensuring readiness in a comparatively shorter time frame for a potentially large client with the intention of displacing competition. Both might need similar knowledge and skills but would need to apply them in different contexts.

3. Culture: This is how we do things here!

Culture inter plays with the organizational narrative in every organization. When these are directed towards a singular organizational reality of ‘this is how we do things here because it always seems to work for us’, the ‘new’ does not gain root however urgent the ‘need’ in response to shifting business landscape. As a result, culture and organizational narrative together shape the leaders more often than our expectations of it being the other way around. For example, if in an organization ‘the way we do things here’ translates into ‘speed over quality: get the work done and delivered’ the assumption can be that the leaders will also be shaped by it rather than the other way around.

4. Captain Crash: Skilling is hard

Lead” is a verb that must be discovered in action and demonstrated in application and there are no shortcuts around it. Skilling is a hard and an uncomfortable work while self-control is an exhaustible resource and a deliberate choice. Oftentimes leadership development programs are light on skilling and even lighter on skilling within the context of the leader. This barrier is compounded when internal champions of change are invisible by the virtue of absence in their support towards the effort. It becomes essential to provide impetus to leaders to commit to their own development expressly in moments when the momentum and discipline required for skilling gets low. Involve executive leaders who will actively advocate, role model, and support the leaders as they experience their leadership development journey.

Shaping the Future of Leadership Development

Growth is a function of dealing with complexity and in business it can help make strategy executable within that level of complexity. Leaders therefore need to continuously question the ecosystem that exists within their organization as well as their own mindset and skill set. Setting strategic ambitious goals and aligning the organization towards them is just one piece of the puzzle but not the puzzle itself. The puzzle is to understand how to create a culture that drives exponential performance and growth. Change such as this must be emergent and driven in a top-down approach to make it stick. As the baton is passed to the leaders to achieve business outcomes, here are 8 crucial steps for implementing a leadership program that will equip your leaders to lead by design as well as intent:

1. Craft the narrative

The narrative around a leadership development program needs to be crafted in a manner that appeals to both the rational as well as the emotional side of leaders. Doing so provides clarity to the leaders and increases engagement by allowing them to take accountability for their own learning.

2. Engage authentically

Engage in authentic conversations with leaders to allow their opinions, views, and assumptions around their own development to surface. Understand that the mindset shift which enables the performance shift in a leader is not linear and not everyone will change at the same time in an organization.

3. Get real

Set realistic expectations and call out the limitations on what the program will and will not achieve. This ensures transparency and helps all stakeholders who are engaged as agents of change in different capacities. For example: setting expectations for a program sponsor will be different from setting expectations for the HR team or the participant who is undergoing the program.

4. Design by deliberation

Design the content around the performance context of the leaders. Performance shift requires behavioral pattern work at the ground level barring which successful transformation cannot happen. This needs to be built into an experience that is linked to ‘current reality’ of leaders and requires them to think differently.

5. Trust science

Adopt science backed methods which suit the context as well as the targeted specific results. This will ensure that an organization can take its leaders through the transformation process by recognizing and addressing different capability and maturity levels.

6. Celebrate small to win big

As one focuses on results when it comes to skilling, do not forget to create short terms wins. Remember that skilling is hard and can be a demotivating experience for a leader. As leaders start to make progress towards the results across 3 dimensions, plan and schedule for interim check-ins that allow the leaders to share their small wins. This will also allow them to share what is working and not working for them. Peer support will also act as an encouragement to keep going towards skill building especially when things seem challenging.

7. Start with awareness

Acknowledge that what is perceived as resistance to change often stems from a lack of clarity. Take accountability to provide that clarity to your leaders. Communication is the currency of leadership and that communication needs to start by intent as well as by design.

8. Call to action

Have internal champions of change by engaging senior leadership to lend visible support to the effort. Doing so will have cascading effects in the organization: it will shift the perception about the significance of the program itself, and it will also reinforce the value of the initiative not just to the organization at large but among-st leaders themselves.  

References

1. Switch - Chip and Dan Heath

2. HBR article - Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It by Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström and Derek Schrader

3. Happiness Hypothesis - Jonathan Haidt

4. HBR article - Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail by John P.Kotter