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How to Overcome the Greatest Leadership Development Challenge

By Mark Busine

This is a profound moment in the history of leadership and a time when leadership development challenges are front and center. 

At a broad level, several macro trends are impacting the workplace and the context within which leaders operate and learn. New technology, new perspectives on learning and performance, and new content challenges are rapidly changing the landscape for leadership development. And according to the 2018 Deloitte Human Capital Trends research, the transformation of learning and development is top of mind for HR Leaders and CEOs. 

It’s fair to say we have seen more pedagogic change in the last 10 years then we have in the last 100. But all this change hasn’t eliminated some of the most common leadership development challenges. Despite the promise of new technologies and increased investment in leadership development:

  • Leaders continue to feel unprepared for the challenges of their roles.
  • Organizations struggle to find and develop a healthy pipeline of leaders.
  • Today’s leaders feel more overwhelmed, more confused, and more stressed about their roles.

So, what is getting in the way?

Time matters more than we realize

According to research from multiple sources, the greatest of all leadership development challenges is time

Time is an easy target. It can’t fight back or defend itself. In an increasingly complex, fast-paced, rapidly changing environment, it feels like time is constantly working against us. 

In fact, while time is an important leadership development challenge it’s also become something of an obsession. Everybody’s talking about it. And the Oxford English Dictionary says "time” is now the most commonly used noun in the English language. (“year” and “day” are also in the top five). 

According to Simon Garfield, author of Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time, “Time, once passive, is now aggressive, it dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable.”

And our fascination with time extends to other fields. In music, film, and literature we are constantly exploring the idea of beating time; going back in time, stopping time, or jumping to the future. In the world of science, each year more than 50 scientific papers are published on time travel.

When it comes to leadership development challenges, it’s not time itself that creates the problem but the feeling of time pressure. Time pressure is a form of psychological stress that occurs when we feel we have less time available (real or perceived) than is necessary to complete a task or obtain a result. This can lead us to limit our research, look for easy solutions, narrow our range of options, or focus on the things that are more immediate rather than those that might bring a longer-term benefit. 

In the domain of leadership and leadership development time pressure manifests itself in a variety of ways. And while these are common approaches to addressing leadership development challenges, they typically fall short.

  • Relying on “old faithful.” Rather than investing in the next generation of leaders or enhancing the skills of current leaders, we default to the usual suspects; those who "get things done." While this may deliver short-term results, it does little to strengthen the overall leadership pipeline.
  • Build it and they will come. Self-directed learning is and should be a part of an organization’s approach to leadership development. Individuals are looking for greater control over their development and more personalized experiences. But that doesn't mean all development should be self-directed. Leaving the development of leaders to individual curiosity and chance is a high-risk approach. While learning libraries can form part of an overall strategy, they aren’t a panacea for all development. In fact, research suggests learners are looking for less self-directed learning.
  • Sink or swim. This is not new, but with the constant pressure of time it is tempting to allow “natural selection” to take its course. However, the "leaders are born" versus "leaders are made" debate is over: leadership is developed over time. While some people may bring qualities and attributes that predispose them to succeed in certain situations, leadership requires focus and practice. 
  • The training sheep dip. Sheep-dipping is typically associated with the one-and-done approach to leadership development in which organizations invest in a single event or short-duration program. While this satisfies the need to do something, it's problematic. It ignores the fact that leadership behaviors and new habits are developed over time, not in a single moment or event. These types of events and programs may set the foundation for development, but they should not be the beginning and end of a development effort. 

    Consider other professional disciplines. How would you feel if a pilot, surgeon, or your accountant relied on a single day or program of development? Yet, we often think less development is sufficient for what is arguably one of the most important and difficult professions: leadership.

  • “Can it be done in two hours?” This is a growing trend building on the previous point about development as a journey. With the pressure of time, companies are legitimately looking for ways to reduce the amount of time spent on all activities, including training. However, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Will this deliver the outcomes we are looking for?” 
  • Technology is the answer. But to what problem? DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018 found that technology isn’t having a notable impact on leadership or business outcomes. Nor is it surpassing high-touch methods such as formal learning and development assignments. There is no doubt that technology will continue to transform the world of learning and leadership development, but we must also move forward with caution. 

Technology may not be the answer to all leadership development problems. The appropriate use of technology has the potential to significantly enhance the learning and leadership development experience. But it may not always be the best option. 

We should also not assume that certain groups, such as Millennials, have a natural preference for technology driven learning. A report by McKinsey & Company found that “Millennials benefit from high-touch learning no less than workers from previous generations do. Younger employees may spend more time online and be more comfortable with mobile applications. But they should not be forced—and, in our experience, don’t desire—to engage solely with digital learning tools.”

Leadership development isn't about making everything fit in less time or waiting until there is a better time. It’s about making a more meaningful investment of the time we have. 

How can we do this?

Make time an advantage

If time is one of our biggest obstacles and greatest leadership development challenges, one of the first things we need to do is change our relationship with it. We need to treat time as an ally instead of an enemy. 

At DDI, we have developed a framework for thinking about how we focus leader development through multiple horizons to ensure time doesn’t get away from us. We call this approach Leadership 480. It revolves around the magic number 480.

The 480 minutes in a leader's day

The first horizon is 480 minutes which equates to approximately eight hours, or one workday. 

Consider the moments that leaders have across a day and the impact these moments can have on them, their teams, and the organization. For example, think about a hallway conversation with a direct report. While it might seem insignificant at the time, it can have a profound impact on how the direct report feels and performs. If that hallway conversation goes poorly, the team member can feel disengaged, frustrated, or even angry. 

Organizations need to focus on preparing leaders to deal with the critical leadership moments they face every day. They also need to focus on the core skills leaders need to maximize their impact across those day-to-day moments.

The 480 days in a two-year span

The second horizon is 480 days. This span represents a two-year period and for most companies is the horizon of critical business priorities. 

Across 480 days, organizations expect leaders to drive priorities, such as innovation, transformation, or operational performance. But too often, companies don’t prepare leaders for these challenges. As a result, days slip by without leaders doing what's needed to step up to the demands of these key priorities. And before they know it, they are missing quarterly and annual goals and targets. 

Organizations need to be clear on what those priorities are and confident that they are preparing leaders to execute them.

The 480 months in a leadership career

The final horizon is 480 months, the length of a 40-year career.

To fuel their leadership pipelines, organization must focus on today, tomorrow, and the future. They need to help leaders build their capabilities for their current roles. They also need to help leaders navigate their careers to ensure a steady flow of leaders moving through the pipeline. That can mean preparing leaders for significant career transitions. It can also mean identifying and developing those with high potential. And, it can entail equipping leaders with the skills and insights to manage their own development and careers.

The key is to consider all three horizons concurrently. Focusing exclusively on one at any time may put other leadership development needs at risk.

The Leadership 480 framework represents what we should focus on to maximize our use of time, and address one of the greatest leadership development challenges. In my next blog, I will discuss how companies can better approach leadership development by introducing a set of best practices appropriate for today’s context. 

Read more about DDI’s Leadership 480 framework for developing core leadership skills, preparing leaders to meet business challenges, and creating high-impact leadership careers.

Mark Busine is Vice President, Product Management, for DDI. Passionate and curious about the field of leadership, Mark is always looking for creative ways to solve client problems. This creative orientation extends outside work where he dabbles in the fine art of songwriting, convinced that a worldwide number-one hit is just around the corner. 

Posted: 05 Nov, 2019,
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