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Why Your Leadership Development Isn't Working

Overcome these 4 challenges to improve the effectiveness of your leadership development efforts.

Overcome these 4 challenges to improve the effectiveness of your leadership development efforts.

Companies believe their ability to execute their most complex strategies is dependent on having high quality leaders. With quality leadership in high demand, these organizations find themselves with their hands tied due to their lack of capable leadership.

What's important

DDI released their Global Leadership Forecast, containing some very insightful data. Over 1000 C-level executives were asked to pick from 28 challenges and rank 10 that present the greatest concerns for their business. The top ranking challenges were:

  1. Developing "Next Gen" Leaders - 64%*
  2. Failure to Attract/Retain Talent - 61%
  3. New competitors globally - 48%

*% of respondents that ranked the issue in their top 5 most challenging. It's safe to say that executives are most concerned about having high quality talent, as well as a sufficient bench of leadership to place in critical roles as needed. It's no wonder this is of great concern either, companies placed in the top 1/3 of financial performers (based on composite of operating margin, EBITDA, revenue growth, and return on equity) are twice as likely to have high-quality leaders than those in the bottom third.

Not working, yet

DDI also reveals that only 30% of HR professionals and 42% of leaders agree the overall quality of their organization's leadership is high. Those numbers are very low, especially considering the importance that companies are placing on leadership needs. The Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board's data shows that 94% of companies plan to increase or maintain their leadership development budget in the next 12 months. How many of these companies will end up wasting time and money, failing to achieve their desired outcome? The answer: a lot of them. DDI's study found that the average success rate of Learning & Development initiatives and programs is only 61%.So why do 39% of companies that set out to improve their leaders fail?

Here are 4 major challenges of most leadership development:

1. Lack of personalization

One individual may be able to strive as a leader in a single environment, but when thrown into an unknown situation, they may not be able to maintain their past success. Leadership is not a static concept, it is dynamic as McKinsey points out. Understanding both the leader and their environment are critical to the success of their development.

Understanding the leader

It is important to first understand the mindset that underpins the behavior of the leader. This understanding is important both for the leader as well as the program engineer. Leadership programs that do not consider tools such as behavioral assessments are missing a critical component to successfully understand their talent.

Understanding the environment

While it would be ideal to present a high potential candidate with a list of 20 positive leadership traits and send them on their way, reality requires a more precise focus for learning to be effective. Organizations require different qualities of their leaders at any given time depending on company culture, operational strategy, role of the leader, and other factors. Organizations would benefit to focus on equipping leaders with 2 or 3 qualities that are most relevant to the environment and context under which they lead. For example, a company looking to expand its footprint through a series of upcoming mergers and acquisitions should have a key group of leaders that are well-prepared in communication and decision making. In contrast, a company preparing for organic growth should value the importance of having leaders that are creative and motivating. All leadership traits on their own are wonderful qualities for anyone to have, but the environment and personality of the leader dictate where the development focus should be.

2. Need for on-the-job practice

Lectures have proven themselves to be the lowest on the totem pole of effective learning. A high-level understanding of human psychology can go a long way in the creation of effective leadership development. Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy that outlines how we need to take information we learn through deeper levels of engagement. The higher the level objective we reach with the information, the more solid our understanding of the new concept becomes. This is especially useful for learning leadership traits, which require deep engagement to integrate a new trait into our character. The idea of putting what you learn in to practice, however, is much easier said than done. Leadership development, internal or external, needs to find ways to create opportunity for leaders to put what they learn into practice. Something as simple as having the leader call a short meeting with team members to update them on some of the concepts they are being introduced to can help bolster their ability to retain the information. However, retaining the lesson is only a part of the battle. In order for a leadership quality to take root, they have to practice with repetition. Participants need to be given real-work experiences to test new approaches and practice what they've learned. This can come in the form of a major project intentionally designated as a development opportunity, for example.

3. More areas to monitor, provide feedback, and measure

Finding ways to monitor progress, provide feedback, and measure the development's success are all components to creating a successful system.

Monitor progress and provide feedback

Development programs need touch points with leaders to check-in and evaluate how their work has changed since the program began or finished. Similarly, leaders need the ability to easily and freely communicate which areas they're struggling with. This opens the door to create deeper learning opportunities through small corrections.

Measure the results

Finding quantifiable measures to evaluate the effectiveness of the development efforts companies engage in can be a challenge, but it is very attainable. Companies that don't measure development success end up repeating the same system of development until they blindly decide it's not working, whereas companies that have effective measurement in place create opportunity for fine-tuning and improvement. One common method of behavioral measurement is through the use of the popular 360-degree assessment. Having an assessment completed before a program and another 6 months later can provide evidence of behavioral change taking place. If development can be tied to a project, comparing data such as cost savings, sales growth, and other financial measures can highlight areas the development is generating a real ROI for the leader's business unit.

4. Insufficient imparted self-awareness

Likely the most important factor in creating successful leadership development is the program's ability to impart effective self-reflection. Central to all leadership concepts should be the promotion of improved self-awareness and intentional self-reflection. In order for the leader to act out learned concepts, they need to understand the what, why, and how of their development capabilities. With effective self-awareness, a leader is much more likely to create lasting change.

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