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Rethinking Best Practices

DDI’s Leadership Databank shows which practices are proven by research, and which ones don’t measure up.
Rethinking Best Practices

If you are an HR or L&D leader, two realities help to define your role. The first is that you contribute to a large outlay of money to try to make your organization’s leaders more effective. By our estimation, based on a recent study by Kennedy Consulting, organizations spend $3,157,894 per hour on leadership development. This amount is eye-opening, but what’s most significant about it is that many of these dollars are wasted on programs and processes that don’t deliver the desired return. In the current “new normal” where organizations scrutinize every dollar spent, not knowing which of your investments are producing a return is no longer acceptable.

Which brings us to the second reality of your role: You likely seek out those practices that make the difference between success and failure when it comes to the effectiveness of your organization’s leaders. These “best practices” supposedly represent the pathway to success. If they are reputed to work in other organizations, and have been adopted by many, they should deliver the same results for your organization, right?

Well, maybe not. What if “best practices” aren’t really the best? We think that’s a fair question to ask. In fact, we believe that best practices aren’t the “best” at all. Instead, they are common practices, adopted and followed because we have been told other organizations have also adopted them (presumably with success).

For this reason, while we believe the merits of best practices are questionable, we also believe there’s a better way to identify those practices that promise to produce results in your organization: those practices that are actually proven by research.

That’s the premise of research we recently authored, Leadership Practices: What’s Proven. What’s “Worth Less.” For this research we drew on insights from DDI’s Leadership Databank, which includes data from over 62,000 leaders and HR professionals from more than 2,400 organizations worldwide, to analyze 19 different practices. These practices fall into eight categories: Aligning with the Business, Getting the Most Out of Your Leadership Pipeline, Creating the Right Context for Leader Growth, Getting Smarter About Digital Learning, Attaining the Right Balance Between Leadership and Management, Making Leadership Agility a Priority, Taking the Lead on Leadership Diversity, and Realizing the Potential of High-Potential Pools.

In analyzing data for each of the eight categories, we made one of two determinations about each practice. Either the practice is proven by research to be effective, or it’s “worth less” than the proven practices and should be discontinued or avoided. We called the lesser practices “worth less” instead of “worthless” because some of them have merit; however, they just aren’t as effective as those practices that are proven by research. (Still, whether a practice is worthless or merely worth less, your organization should steer clear of it.)

What follows are some of the practices we examined, and whether they are truly proven by research.

PRACTICE: Employing Behavior Modeling Development Programs


While the content included in a leadership development program is important, it shouldn’t be the only consideration. Other factors are important, too, including what surrounds the content, and whether it is an assessment, manager support, or a post-training skill check-up.

One of the most critical factors is the use of behavior modeling, which entails offering opportunities for participants to practice the new skills and get constructive feedback. Participants benefit from this behavior-modeling approach by becoming more confident and proficient in their use of the new skills. Our research, which cites more than 40 years of impact studies and analyses on the effectiveness of DDI’s Interaction Management® (IM®) leadership development system, makes clear that behavior modeling benefits organizations as well because it is proven to improve several critical leadership competencies. That means that investments in leadership development produce better results.

PRACTICE: (Over)relying on Digital-Based Learning

VERDICT: Worth Less

In hopes of saving the costs associated with classroom delivery and minimizing the time participants need to be away from their jobs, digital-based learning can be an attractive option for organizations. But it’s not always the best option. Perhaps most surprising is how Millennial leaders view digital-based learning.

In a study included in the DDI Leadership Databank, Millennial leaders were asked about nine different options for development, including both their frequency of use and effectiveness. Of the four technology-centric options—instructor-led online learning, self-study online learning, mobile learning, and social learning—none was selected as highly effective by more than a quarter of respondents. Especially troubling: Self-study online learning, the “on your own” approach that promises the most cost savings, ranked as the second-most commonly used learning method but was strongly preferred by just 1 in 10 Millennial leaders.

Why? There’s no clear answer, though contributing factors could be the relatively high technology expectations of younger leaders or, perhaps, that learning technologies have not yet sufficiently matured to be viewed as engaging by Millennials. Regardless, the implications are clear: Technology isn’t the right answer for all training needs. At this point, it’s best to use it as a supplement to other forms of formal learning.


PRACTICE: Ditching Event-Centric Development


Organizations are growing savvier about structuring development programs as sequenced learning journeys that unfold over time, instead of the more event-centric approach of putting a population through a “one shot” training program and not providing any follow up development or application opportunities.

Learning journeys offer a significant payoff. The research included in DDI’s Leadership Databank shows that organizations that position leadership development as a learning journey are 2.5 times more likely to be in the top 20 percent of organizations on a financial composite that includes profitability, earnings per share, five-year rate of return to investors, and stockholder equity. In fact, we found that the learning journey was the HR practice with the strongest link to financial performance.

PRACTICE: Anything Less Than a Full Pipeline Approach

VERDICT: Worth Less

If a development program targeting one level is effective, programs targeting two levels should deliver up to twice as much impact, right? Well, no, this isn’t the case. Using the same financial composite described above to measure the financial performance impact of leadership development programs, we found that having successful programs at two organizational levels amounted to just a two-percentile point increase, moving from the 44 percent to 46 percent.

The takeaway, however, is not to stop at just one level, but to target all three levels—frontline, mid-level, and senior-level. We found that organizations saw a whopping 17 percentile point increase—46 percent to 63 percent—over the financial performance realized when only two levels had highly effective leadership development programs.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist & Vice President, Leadership Reach Center, for DDI.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for DDI.

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