Best practice leadership development: how do you measure up?

What does best practice leadership development look like in 2018?

In this two-part series, Anthony Mitchell examines the latest trends in leadership development and looks ahead to more significant transformation of this domain in the next five years

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Each year, I am exposed to more than 100 different organisations’ approaches to leadership development – sometimes intimately involved in design and/or delivery and sometimes in an advisory capacity. Within this, I have the chance to assist many of the most progressive organisations to re-conceptualise their view of leadership development to fit with changes in their operating context.

So, what has changed in the last five years? I’ll take each of four key dimensions in turn:

1. The objectives: why the intervention is needed and what it is desired to deliver
Far more than in 2013, leadership development in 2018 is targeted at what might broadly be described as ‘translating strategy into culture’. The purpose has become less about transitions (e.g. to senior executive or first-time manager) or building succession (e.g. through talent programs), although such programs remain relevant. Instead, organisations are looking to build behaviours and skills to help the business deal with challenges, build a coherent understanding of ‘what we need to prioritise and how we need to work to win’ and use the leader group to get the whole workforce aligned and engaged. This necessarily means building new behaviours and skills, but they are very much for a purpose linked to the strategic agenda of the time.

2. The content: what capabilities, attributes or behaviours the intervention targets
In the last five years, we have seen the following types of capability increasingly in the spotlight:

  • Enterprise leadership – leading beyond one’s direct area of responsibility and taking a stewardship role for the organisation
  • Leadership capabilities for complexity, ambiguity and disruption, including approaches around adaptive leadership, Agile, and Cynefin
  • Development of resilience in self and others, including growth mindset and psychological safety
  • Inclusive leadership
  • Digital leadership (although the definition of this often remains cloudy)

None of this has taken away from the need for core leadership strengths around strategic thinking, emotional intelligence and people skills (e.g. coaching, difficult conversations). However, it leads to an increasingly long list of capabilities to cover. The better interventions focus on a small number of areas (sometimes just one capability); the poor quality ones try to spend a little time on each and as a result achieve almost nothing.

“This is an interesting tension between ‘what will produce effective learning’ and ‘what appetite do organisations and participants have for effort beyond the already challenging workload of business as usual’”

3. The design – what shape and style the intervention has
This has been an area of material change. In particular, we’ve seen an interesting tension:

  • On the one hand, increased focus on blended learning, especially in terms of the focus on on-the-job learning
  • On the other hand, reduced use of action learning or any kind of activity which requires work outside the strict parameters of the program

This is an interesting tension between ‘what will produce effective learning’ and ‘what appetite do organisations and participants have for effort beyond the already challenging workload of business as usual’. Whereas a decade ago, the inclusion of longitudinal team projects was regarded as best practice, today they are often seen as simply unworkable. By contrast, options such as job rotation (which often has an equal or greater impact on workload) are seen as a more acceptable form of on-the-job learning.

We have also seen the rise of more modular programs, including optional modules. Learning is much more likely to be ‘chunked’ and ideally be employee-driven.

4. The delivery – what modes and tools are used to deliver the intervention
Not surprisingly, the design changes go hand-in-hand with delivery changes. Of course, digital delivery makes up a far higher proportion of modalities in 2018 than in 2013. This includes everything from webinars to accessing video content direct from one’s learning portal, but looks less like the clunky e-learning of five years ago.

Alongside this is the greater use of other technologies. These include biometric tools (especially for work on resilience), VR (for immersive learning) and apps (to support on-the-job learning).

Delivery has changed in other ways. This includes a recognition of the need for better evaluation. While the tide has moved slowly, many organisations now have their interventions independently evaluated, looking at their impact on capability building and business results at a programmatic level

So that takes us to 2018. While some of these changes are producing more effective leadership development, some of them are simply responses to business pressures and have reduced the efficacy of programs. In Bendelta’s comparative evaluation studies, we have found more than 85% of interventions have little chance of achieving their objectives as the architecture simply is not fit-for-purpose. The worst culprits are:

  • Taking on too many development areas within insufficient time on each
  • Too little participant time spent materially outside their comfort zone (and instead listening to presenters or studying frameworks, or simply distracted)
  • The behavioural feedback either being too little, too infrequent or low quality
  • Primitive approaches to evaluation which provide not insight on how well the intervention is working or how it could be improved

If your programs are guilty of some or all of the above, the reality is that – regardless of participant feedback – they will be making little or no impact on capability, behaviour or business outcomes. They are a waste of time and money.

“Many of the best organisations are already taking leadership development more seriously and giving it the investment of time, money and rigour that it deserves”

The good news is that many of the best organisations are already taking leadership development more seriously and giving it the investment of time, money and rigour that it deserves.

4 key leadership development considerations
What can you do to ensure your organisation is aligned with contemporary practice? Ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Are you using leadership development to ‘translate strategy into culture’? Are you completely clear on what culture you need to achieve your culture, and what you most need from leaders to create that culture? Even if you are clear, is that what your current interventions are able to deliver?
  2. Are your key interventions focused on a very small number of critical capabilities?
  3. Are you managing the tension between attuning to the operating rhythm of the business and providing development that actually makes an impact? Have you chunked the learning so that is manageable but maintained the intensity and adult principles necessary for it to have an effect? Do you actually know?
  4. Do your interventions use technology that is well advanced from what you utilised 3-5 years ago? Are these being leveraged effectively to drive behaviour change and more participant-centred delivery?

Once you can answer all of the above questions positively, you’ll be in good shape – for 2018, at least.

So, what might we see by 2023? Stay tuned for part 2 in this series, coming soon.

Image source: iStock