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Are We Missing the Mark on How to Develop Leaders?

Mark Phelps By Mark Phelps

I just read an article by the folks at McKinsey titled, Why leadership-development programs fail. They list four common mistakes that companies often make in developing their leaders:

  1. Overlooking context
  2. Decoupling reflection from real work
  3. Underestimating mind-sets
  4. Failing to measure results

While we don’t disagree that the common mistakes they describe are real, we feel there is more to the story, and they failed to include the biggest and most common mistake of all.Study after study shows that too many leaders at all levels are not as effective as they could or should be. In assessing leader quality in our soon-to-be-released Global Leadership Forecast, only 35% of over 13,000 leaders rate their frontline and mid-level leaders as either “Very Good” or “Excellent.” Just over one in three respondents feel their organizations are getting leadership right!Let’s examine McKinsey’s four common mistakes in greater detail:

  • Context in learning is absolutely critical. How often do leaders arrive at a leadership development session and ask, “Why am I here?” Some may even be thinking, “Let’s get this session over with as I’ve got real work to do back in my office.” For leadership transformation to take place, the connection to the skills leaders are learning (e.g., sparking inquiry, generating new ideas and experimentation) must be hardwired to the drivers of the business (e.g., innovation). This creates a burning platform for learning, fodder for powerful practice sessions and change.
  • Coupling or linking learning and work is not enough. Most organizations say they are a learning organization and yet there is a separation of formal learning from the day-to-day work. We feel that the concept of 70/20/10 falls short of how learning should be conducted. Engaging development programs should interweave formal and informal learning together so that learning and day-to-day work are not seen as separate activities. Why can’t formal learning experiences introduce new leadership skills, have learners begin to apply them and at the same time foster peer coaching and learning from each other?  

    We believe that frontline leaders will get more benefit from development programs that provide spaced learning of new skills rather than in big blocks of multi-day training. These leaders often see the benefit of doing things differently, but the biggest challenge can be to recall when to use what new skills and investing the practice time and attention to get comfortable using them. 
  • The mind-set of leaders is very important for mid-level, operational leaders and less important for frontline leaders. Nearly all mid-level leaders would say they have “been there, done that,” and their success at rising to their current level is proof that their approaches work! Their leadership behaviors, good or bad, have been refined to an extent that they often give less value to any “new” or different leadership skill. They’ve usually attended multiple “training classes” in the past and they often are less receptive to learning new skills. Especially for these more experienced mid-level leaders, leadership messages need to be crisp, relevant and thought-provoking enough to create new insights in each leader’s mind. Those new insights are needed to begin “unfreezing” their approach to leadership.  

    By contrast, for frontline leaders, as long as they are getting the right support from their managers, it is easier to redirect them to consider and “try on” new leader skills that will help them lead their teams better.  
  • Good measurement often plays second fiddle, if it is even included in the program design. For many owners of leadership development programs, it is difficult to collect results that are valued and trusted by operational and senior leaders and there could be a concern (or even a fear) that the results will not reflect well on the program itself. For example, The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, Calhoun, Pollock, & Jefferson, reported that after training, only 15% of learners applied what they had learned well enough to improve their performance. Just because it is difficult to get useful and believable measures doesn’t make measurement optional. H. Thomas Johnson, author of Profit Beyond Measure, sums it up well when he stated, “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get.”

Biggest “mistake” of all: Strong support from the leaders’ managers is paramount. The one mistake as to why leadership development programs fail that we feel McKinsey should have included is the lack of manager support. Research dating back over 20 years by Broad and Newstrom shows the value and importance of manager support for development initiatives before, during and after formal learning events. Whether it is a mid-level leader supporting their frontline leader’s program or a senior leader actively supporting a mid-level leader’s developmental experience, this support—and the positive role model they should demonstrate—provides a lasting positive impression on the learner. If organizations could pick only one mistake to correct, we believe strong manager support will deliver the greatest impact every time!

Mark Phelps is a senior consultant in DDI's Leadership Development Group.

Posted: 29 Jan, 2014,
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