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The Importance of the Basics in Developing Leadership Skills

By Bruce Court

two people having a business conversationIn today’s rapidly changing world, where terms like cultural transformation, big data, digital leadership, and many others are thrown around like confetti, it can be challenging to design and deliver leadership development programs that produce the desired business outcomes. What’s more, new technology has added another layer of complexity to the successful design and delivery of training solutions. 

To deliver the appropriate outcomes, we should always start by considering what the business needs leaders to be able to do. One way to determine what’s needed is to ask senior leaders to complete the sentence, “We need leaders who can …….” This has far more impact than asking them to select competencies or pick from a catalog of course titles. According to the 2018 Global Leadership Forecast, some of the responses you might hear from senior leaders include, “lead with digitization,” “be adaptable,” and “be collaborative.” 

The 2018 Global Leadership Forecast also tells us what the learners (the other customers) need. The content needs and learning preferences of the learners should always be considered. The three features learners prefer most include (in this order):

  1. Personalized learning experiences.
  2. Coaching from external mentors.
  3. Formal workshops, training courses, and seminars.

Armed with the relevant information about the business needs and expectations for leaders, as well as the leader’s expectations as learners, you can construct learning journeys and an ecosystem that will sustain and support the leaders’ development efforts going forward.

Organizations at this stage are often reviewing interesting course titles and content “guaranteed” to have leaders and sponsors signing on to take part in the development activities. But caution is advised when using this approach. Whatever the leader is expected to accomplish, he or she must do it while working with others, and to accomplish that, the leader must effectively interact with others. This is where the “basics” come into play, and why they should not be forgotten.

Building a case for the basics

The basics are built on the premise that there are two kinds of needs to be met in every interaction. There are practical needs and personal needs. When you go to a restaurant for dinner, you expect to have both good food and good service. If you only had good food, but the service was terrible you probably wouldn’t go back. The same would be true if the restaurant served a terrible meal with great service. 

Practical needs are the objectives that need to be accomplished through an interaction; the personal needs are the “human” needs everyone brings to every interaction.

Practical needs include the need to: 

Personal needs include the need to feel: 

• Reach a decision 

• Resolve a conflict 

• Develop a solution or solve a problem 

• Plan how to approach a task or project

• Plan the implementation of a change

• Heard and understood 

• Respected and valued

• Trusted (and willing to trust)

• Meaningfully involved

• Supported

This means that before they can develop any of the skills that are needed for specific business-related situations, leaders must be competent and confident in meeting both personal and practical needs. 

At DDI, we label these foundational elements as Interaction Guidelines and Key Principles

Interaction Guidelines form the structure for discussions and enable individuals to meet the practical needs of their internal and external partners. There are five guidelines:

OPEN with what and why. Let people know what you want to talk about and why it's important.

CLARIFY details. Before you begin discussing ideas or solutions, make sure everyone understands the details by clarifying any facts, figures, or information needed for others to be able to move forward.

DEVELOP ideas. Cultivate ideas to achieve the main goal and do this by seeking involvement from all participants. Only share your own ideas after listening to everyone else’s.

AGREE on actions. Once you have a list of good ideas and alternatives, involve everyone in choosing the ideas to put into action, and specify what will be done, who will do it, and by when.

CLOSE with review and set follow-up. To make sure everyone understands what's happening, go over the main points of the discussion and what people agreed to.

Key Principles, meanwhile, form the basis of effective interactions. By using these principles, learners can meet each other’s personal needs to feel valued, respected, and understood. The Key Principles include:

  1. Maintain or enhance self-esteem.
  2. Listen and respond with empathy.
  3. Ask for help and encourage involvement.
  4. Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale. (to build trust)
  5. Provide support without removing responsibility. (to build ownership)

The visual below depicts how the Key Principles are like the hub of a wheel, the Interaction Guidelines are like the spokes, and the specific business purpose would be like a tire. 

interaction guidelines

Considerations for developing the basics 

In order to change behavior, there are three phases to development: Engage, Learn, and Grow. Or, to put it another way, organizations need an ecosystem for today’s leaders so that they can practice and get feedback as they seek to master the basics. This ecosystem doesn’t need to be complex but it must exist to ensure results. 

Here are just a few examples that organizations are using to develop the basics.

Technology can play an important role in the development of the basics. Both practice and feedback are available through games and simulations. I know of one executive who uses simulation to prepare for difficult conversations, just as athletes warm up before an event. In addition, social media and apps on a phone or a tablet can also be used to support development efforts. 

Many organizations provide refreshers or use Learning Accelerators, to ensure the importance and value of the basics are reinforced. One example is using Learning Accelerators as part of a high-potential graduation session. A refresher could be designed and used to show progress being made, but also to reinforce that just because you are graduating, it doesn’t mean you can forget about the basics.

(Note that Learning Accelerators are easily deployed in a variety of modalities before, during, and/or after formal learning occurs to engage leaders in sustaining their learning, while taking a planful approach to on-the-job application.) 

Learners might also access microcourses that are “short bursts” of learning ranging from 7 to 20 minutes each. The microcourses provide just the right amount of information through videos, quick tips, checklists, planners, and other practical learning tools that enable leaders to increase their competence and confidence in applying the basics.

Avoiding the basics can prove costly

When we are constantly asked to do more with less, it can be very tempting to forget about developing and maintaining the basics. Doing so can be very costly in both the short and long term. 

Fortunately, there are multiple tools, techniques, and technology to make sure leaders are not just getting what the organizations expects them to understand, but also the basics that enable leaders to practice and get feedback to grow their overall leadership capability.

Explore the research proving that DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development pays off.

Bruce Court partners with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy. He’s experienced in every facet of leadership strategy design, development, and execution. Outside of work, Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen. He loves eating at great restaurants, as well as “sampling” good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.

Posted: 06 Feb, 2019,
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