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It’s Time to Change the Way We Develop Leaders


It’s Time to Change the Way We Develop Leaders

It has remained a conundrum to me that leadership development often does not achieve its goal of developing leaders. In HBR’s well known article on “Why Leadership Training Fails”, the authors reported a staggering $356 billion globally in 2015 was spent on leadership  development and also found in their research that the financial investments rarely deliver meaningful behavioural change nor results.

Sounds bleak, right? So why do companies continue to invest in programs that are not giving them the returns they seek?

Companies are taking the easy way out, outsourcing development to the multitudes of leadership development providers out in the market with little understanding of what it takes to truly achieve results and embed change and with little understanding of what problem they are trying to solve. Let’s paint a picture of what may be really happening.

Throughout my career as an internal HR Director and as an external HR consultant, I’ve seen it all too often (and let’s face it, I was reinforcing this approach early in my career). An external leadership development program is developed. A select special few are tapped to participate.  At worst, the program content is generic; at best, it is bespoke and tailored. People leave these programs energised because they have gained new knowledge; they learned something interesting and perhaps inspiring.

But what happens now? Those same people go back to their same teams, processes, and structures that have been designed to preserve the status quo. Even if these people wanted to show up differently, try out new behaviours, create new habits of leadership, the system they work in isn’t budging. Moreover, their leaders aren’t supporting nor rewarding these new behaviours (they probably weren’t even aware of what the objectives of the program were in the first place!). Their team members, likely not tapped as a “special” employee to participate, are in the dark, leaving the newly developed alienated with his or her new knowledge and skills to practice alone. Over time, the energy and enthusiasim for experimentation and change are lost because it is simply too difficult. Does this sound familiar? If so, it’s time to consider a different approach.

The world of leadership has and will continue to change.

Gone are the days of traditional management. Globalisation and technology are having significant organisational behaviour impacts and the concept of leadership needs to adapt. It’s time to rethink how we develop leaders:

(1) How we define leadership needs to change – we need to stop thinking about leadership as a hierarchy. The pyramid model where leaders sit at the top is simply obsolete. More and more cross-functional teams, networks, and ecosystems are forming. Agile methodologies and the start-up mentality are flattening organisations.  The gig economy is growing, with more contractors and independent consultants working in organisations. Bottom line is that the traditional structure of organisations will become increasingly irrelevant to leadership in the future world of work.

What does this mean? Only investing in the special few “high potentials” and the existing leaders at the top won’t create sustainable leadership. Additionally, we need to close the gap and recognise the leadership development needs of smaller organisations (who don’t have the big budgets) and individuals who participate in the gig economy. We need to broaden our definition of leadership and develop leaders at all levels.Read about our Leadership Philosophy for a more enduring definition of what leadership means. If you want to be a leader, you should be able to access the knowledge and resources to help you develop as a leader.

(2) Recognise that development is not a one sized fits all journey – leadership development programs are often delivered as a cohort experience or structured program, where the cohort goes through the same experience. Sometimes, individuals in organisations can elect to undertake specific programs they are interested in, at the approval of their leader, this being the exception rather than the norm. Current leadership development programs take little account of individual development areas and needs. Rather, to achieve economices of scale, organisations invest in large, scalable, and repeatable programs. Or on the other end of the spectrum, they hire executive coaches to work 1:1 with leaders. However, we all know that humans are quite unique. In a world where we can customise pretty much anything, why wouldn’t we invest in customising our own developmental paths?

What does this mean? The complex business environment and growing diversity of our workforce requires us to rethink our reliance on traditional leadership development programs and/or 1:1 coaching. Individuals who aspire to being leaders should be empowered to identify and pursue their own learning paths, with the right support. This is the most effective way to develop authentic leaders.  

(3) No single provider can do it all – yes, I said it. With the plethora of leadership development consultants and providers out there, there needs to be a way to find the right one for you. This doesn’t mean that all providers are rubbish. No, it’s exactly the opposite. There are so many strong partners out there that likely shine in one or two core areas. However, based on the competitiveness of the market, each seeks to provide 10+ services in order to diversify and stay competitive.

What does this mean?

The industry of leadership development providers needs to raise its game to boldly identify what they do best (and humbly admit what they’re not good at), then pull together as an ecosystem to deliver the best services to truly lift up leadership in the world. This empowers individuals and organisations to truly get clear on what opportunity or problem they are tackling, and who then, is best positioned to help.

Humans Who Lead is working towards this future.

As my vision for the future of leadership development, we need to pull together to create the world’s most powerful Learning Platform and Community where individuals can customise their own learning journey and get access to an ecosystem of tools, people, and resources that can help them on this journey. Instead of being a passive passenger, let’s inspire each other to take ownership of our own development and become the leaders we authentically aspire to be.

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