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A Leadership Lesson from The Rolling Stones

by Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D. and Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

The evidence continues to pour in that better leadership translates into better organizational performance. Working with 2,488 organizations from around the world, DDI's recently released Global Leadership Forecast (GLF) 2018 demonstrates yet again the significant relationship between an array of leadership practices and multiple financial measures (EBITDA, revenue growth, and ROE).

Yet, the data on the effectiveness of their leaders seems to be stuck in a rut. Only 42 percent of the 25,000-plus leaders who participated in our research rated the quality of leadership in their own companies as excellent or very good, up only 2 percent since the 2011 GLF. More worrisome? Eighteen percent of the 2,547 HR research respondents felt their organizations had sufficient leadership talent to meet their future business needs, down 4 percent since 2011. What exactly is going on here?

Enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution

One possible explanation is the speed of change. We are now in the midst of an extraordinary Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by the marriage of the digital and physical worlds. Its velocity is 20 to 40 times faster than previous economic shifts. Every organizational function, including HR, is feeling the pain of keeping ahead of the curve. In fact, GLF participants reported significantly increased pressure across eight distinct challenges, ranging from budget constraints to embracing modern technologies.

Trying harder will leave us playing in a garage band when we should be striving to play in a stadium or arena. While a deeper discussion of the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is warranted, in terms of both what constitutes successful leadership and how we approach building leadership capability, here we will focus on the "how" component.

Which brings us to the Rolling Stones.

Identified as the 100th best song on a list of 500 by Rolling Stone magazine, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" inspired us to take a closer look at the way we develop our leaders. The chorus of the song, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is below for those of you who would like to sing along:

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well, you just might find
You get what you need

We were faced with a unique opportunity to take stock of the leadership learning landscape by comparing how leaders want to be developed with what HR professionals are offering. No other study has been able to do this. Our findings are illustrated in the figure below.

The right-hand side of the figure shows those learning activities that leaders want more than HR is currently providing ("You can't always get what you want"). The left-hand side shows those activities that leaders want but aren't being provided by HR. The highlighted blue area reflects areas where the frequency of what HR is offering and what leaders desire are in sync.

A closer look at learning methods

While every method shown in the graphic above deserves closer examination, we will highlight a few here.

1. Books and articles are overused. While some provide unique perspectives, few leaders have the time to plow through hundreds of pages unless they see the direct value. We hate to be the ones to say this, but there are far too many POVs on leadership with too little value.

2. Formal learning is still alive and well. We frequently hear from HR how little leaders today value formal workshops and courses. But if you ask leaders, you get a different response. For many organizations, some degree of classroom-based learning (learning with others) is a vital part of the learning mix. And it seems leaders feel they are getting the right amount. Keep in mind, we are addressing the development of leadership skills, not learning in general. Also, some leadership skills might be best acquired in a more formal and face-to-face environment.

3. Microlearning is on the rise. An approach that's relatively new for many organizations, microlearning is offered by HR somewhat frequently and is in sync with the amount leaders desire. The concept has a great advantage in a business environment, where leaders have less time for lengthy learning programs. While microlearning doesn't have to be digital, it can be easily delivered on mobile devices, something leaders would like to see offered more frequently. These short bursts of learning are far easier to develop and allow leaders to access just enough, just-in-time content to address their immediate needs.

4. Social network-based learning may represent a missed opportunity. Even though HR is not offering it very frequently and leaders are not seeking more, social-based learning offers overlooked advantages. This type of learning allows all leaders to learn from peers, employees, or experts within and outside their organization. It's a many-to-many learning approach rather than one-to-many, blurring the line between the teacher and the student.

5. Leaders want more coaching—just not from their manager. In one GLF 2018 finding, only 41 percent of leaders reported ever having a mentor anytime in their careers, yet our research shows that having a mentor is highly correlated with financial outcomes. Note where this falls relative to coaching from a direct manager. It's near the top of the list as a highly offered option that leaders would like less of. Why? Mentors who aren't leaders' direct managers can provide fresh perspectives on a variety of job challenges and career issues, and they can provide it in a safer and more trusting coaching environment. Usually, this type of mentoring is voluntary and under the control of the person being mentored. And while there's no overestimating the importance of a direct manager's coaching and support, a mentee can appreciate the benefits of a relationship in which they can receive guidance from someone other than the person in whose hands their job lies.

6. Personalization holds the greatest promise for staying ahead of the change curve. You can't always get what you want? Increasingly, however, that's not the case. Leaders want more personalization than their organizations are offering and with good reason. From custom socks woven with pictures of your pets to crafting an employee-directed benefits package, personalization is everywhere, and people want choice. While a handful or organizations are making progress, many others mistakenly view personalized learning as no more than offering leaders a catalog of hundreds of learning assets to pick from.

The future of robust personalized learning will still offer choice, but it will also offer expert guidance. Sophisticated assessment tools and adaptive learning techniques will direct learners to the content that can best accelerate their performance and/or prepare them for future careers. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be deployed to see what content other leaders are finding useful. Leaders will be able to tailor learning to their preferred style and pace (e.g., selecting from the formal and informal learning offerings provided by their organization as well as what they find on their own). Behind the scenes, AI engines will be busy at work determining what sorts of learning really make a difference in performance. Leaders will be more engaged in their learning and organizations will deliver development far more efficiently and effectively.

Leaders Are Our Customers

The seismic change in both what leaders need to be successful and the way we develop leaders means we cannot continue to do the same things. It requires us to take a fresh look at our roles as HR professionals. There is inherent danger in beginning to take positions that one form of learning is better than another. Leaders are our customers, and our new role is to maximize their total learning experience. While we still will require expertise in the ins and outs of developing our leaders, we also need to acquire a new set of skills as learning experience managers, blending a mix of ingredients to best meet the needs of the organization and each leader. This is not mere conjecture.

Our GLF 2018 data showed that the small number of organizations with a dedicated learning experience manager enjoy better perceptions about the quality of development from leaders. Both their future bench strength and overall financial performance is stronger than those companies that do not have this role in place. Indeed, these are the organizations that are given their leaders what they want and what they need.

Explore the findings from the Global Leadership Forecast 2018.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D. is a senior research associate for DDI and a co-author of the Global Leadership Forecast 2018.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist and Vice President of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). Evan is the lead researcher for the Global Leadership Forecast 2018 and is a frequent author and presenter on leadership assessment and development, HR analytics, data visualization, and workplace technology.

Posted: 01 May, 2018,
Talk to an Expert: A Leadership Lesson from The Rolling Stones
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