Leadership Development – Training versus Strategy

It never ceases to amaze me. Organizations today spend a huge amount of their training budgets in putting their employees through the classic Time Management programs where considerable emphasis is placed on being proactive versus reactive, spending time on tasks that are “important but not urgent”, and thinking “out of the box”. Paradoxically, these companies do not have a proactive leadership development strategy in place. They wait for client complaints, dwindling sales, exiting employees, and dropping earnings per share before they conclude that they need to “fix their leadership”.

Leadership development in a classroom?

Sadly though, a majority of leadership programs are designed and conducted like moral science lessons. Most managers being adults already know they need to “walk the talk”, “be a role model”, and “listen to their people”. There is no point in telling them what they already know. Some trainers do manage to make their sessions more interactive with role plays and activities, but once the training is over, the participants go back to their offices – back to square one! No matter how wonderful the trainer/facilitator or how impressive the content or presentation, the question that remains is, now what?

Real problems, real people, real situations

Thanks to today’s matrix global workplace structures, managers have to battle with complex situations like working with international customers, constantly changing processes and dynamics, multiple bosses, employees spread across different shifts or locations, to name a few. The challenge multiplies when teams need to ramp up quickly and star performers leave without a succession plan in place. Ultimately, managers have to resort to promoting the best out of the lot, who are pushed into the mainstream without a lifeguard.

Compare this to the situation even a decade ago when it was possible to observe and emulate your bosses. If you were unsure about which candidate to hire, or which employee to promote, you could check with your manager who would advise or guide you.

When you look at the situation today, who could a junior manager approach when faced with a dilemma? He may have attended the most expensive Crucial Conversations training, but how confident would he be about dealing with a political, back-stabbing team member? What would he know about keeping his team gainfully engaged when there are no projects in the near horizon?

The leadership development training that might have worked ten years ago, would no longer work effectively, simply because the theories remain theories without sufficient scope to learn by observation, or emulation. No matter how good a “high-potential” development plan or a succession plan looks on paper, it remains a mere theory if not supported by a robust leadership development strategy.

Making leadership development real

A strong leadership development strategy not only takes care of developing current leaders, but also aligns leadership with the culture of the organization. This means that every leader puts to practice the core values of the organization.

Here are some of the possible ways leadership development can be a strategy rather than a series of training programs.

Identifying and assessing basic leadership competencies during selection

For this, it is important to identify the top few mandatory behavioral competencies you want to see in your leaders no matter what domain, vertical, or department they manage. These could be People management, Planning, Customer service, Communication, Interpersonal relationship, and so on.

The management leadership in consultation with the executive HR could implement evaluation instruments to assess their leadership candidates on these parameters. All candidates, internal and external should be put through the assessment. These assessments could be 360-degree surveys (for internal candidates), group discussions, or other assessment center instruments, depending on the competencies identified. The management could also select candidates that they feel can be developed on competencies they may lack.

Rather than a face-to-face interview with only the hiring department manager, a behavioral interview round with a cross-functional leadership panel would help better decision making that is not subject to prejudices or bias. Moreover the managers from other departments would be able to exercise more objectivity than the hiring manager, who might feel pressurized to hire who she thinks is the best candidate. It is important that the talent management/OD leadership is also part of the interviewing as they would be able to ascertain implicit traits that others may not be able to spot as easily.

Getting them started

In case of first-time managers, it usually helps putting them through a basic orientation program where they understand the company’s vision and leadership principles. They also need to know about the leadership competencies expected out of them. The talent management team could also form a committee or support group for all first-time leaders and provide them basic resources to get them started. Here, it might also help to conduct instructor-led workshops/programs on leadership basics.

Next, the HR business partner and talent development leadership need to meet with the new leaders letting them know who they could reach out to. This also gives the new manager a sense of pride and belonging. This could be followed by a few months of on-the-job mentoring by his senior manager who could introduce the new manager slowly into the system.

Sustaining the energy

Like I mentioned earlier, even first-time managers already know the core principles of leadership because they have already worked under a manager. Even if they didn’t get to experience a great leader, they would at least be aware of what they shouldn’t be doing as leaders!

The first couple of years are going to be full of challenging situations that would provide plenty of learning opportunities to the new leader. Performance issues, customer escalations, attrition, unhappy employees, performance appraisal, and conflicting project priorities will not only test his willpower, but also his sense of right versus wrong. It is during these critical moments that new managers would need coaches and mentors who have been there, done that.

The talent management team can form a panel of senior management leaders who can act as coaches and mentors to these new leaders. Coaching is an excellent process as that would help the manager find his own solution to his challenges especially where it comes to decision-making and using his own intuition. Being mentored by senior leaders would help him learn other and more efficient ways of dealing with similar situations as these leaders would be sharing their real experiences.

A transition from individual contributor to manager is a painful process. The strongest emotion is that of loneliness as a manager cannot talk about their problems with their team. They cannot talk to their own manager either probably because she is on a different time zone in a different country!

A monthly ongoing series of one-hour workshop could be scheduled by the talent management team whereby one of the senior leaders in rotation could facilitate discussions on real topics and situations like “Dealing with political employees”, “How to keep the team engaged”, “Communicating new compensation policies”, and so on. The emphasis here is on discussion amongst the participants rather than a trainer/facilitator taking a behavioral learning session. Over a period of time, these managers naturally reach out to each other to compare notes and learn better ideas, and form their own emotional support group.

Blended learning in leadership development

A talent management team’s role is not merely limited to conducting programs but to facilitate different ways of developing talent through blended learning ranging from e-learning, on-the-job knowledge transfer, instructor-led sessions, or even activities like group discussions or seminars. All these enable holistic learning – both formal and informal. The talent management team could organize online learning resources in the form of videos, articles, and other presentation material to help leaders sharpen their knowledge on an ongoing basis. They could organize seminars from industry experts. There are so many free webinars out there on leadership that companies could well leverage.

Thinking out of the classroom!

As per basic learning theories and principles, adults learn best when they are put into situations that mimic real life. A classroom is as far from real life as it can be. It’s time we taught new leaders how to think out of the classroom rather than out of the box!

Employee disengagement begins with leader disengagement. A neglected leader will bring down the morale of a large number of employees and customers too along with her. Leadership development cannot be a series of training programs anymore. A solid and enduring leadership development strategy cannot be a quick fix! It is a critical requirement that needs to be revisited and revised on a regular basis to help the organization stay in context.


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