Every leadership development programme needs these three things

By Billy Roberts

4 minute read

Type “leadership” into Amazon and you’ll be confronted with over 60,000 options. Surely, if there were a right answer, people would have stopped writing books about it; who would buy the new ones? This is content overload.

The success rate of leadership initiatives in learning is just as varied. Only 10% of cash put towards corporate learning pays dividends. Yet, as organisations increasingly prefer flexible solutions over formal structures, it's becoming more important to have leadership at every level.

However, there is light at the end of the leadership tunnel. The businesses that make leadership training work really make it work. Companies in the top quartile of leadership outperform other organizations by a factor of two, and businesses that invest in developing leaders during significant transformations are 2.4 times more likely to hit their performance targets.

So what’s the secret? What do these businesses get right? There are three stages.

Stage 1 - define the leadership that your business needs

Most of the time, organisations are like me on Amazon staring at a choice of 60,000 versions of leadership.

Apparently, leaders should be unshakeable in their resolve, but also flexible; assertive but employee-led; a detail-oriented administrator and cult-like shaman; strategizing and improvising constantly, prospectively and simultaneously. All these drops of wisdom mix together to make a form of snake oil.

Just 40% of companies say their learning is aligned with business goals. This means that the rest don’t have a filter to block conflicting or confused content. With such contradictory leadership training there’s a very real chance that each bit of content a learner in these organisations reads will be nullified by the next.

If a business wants to enhance the leadership qualities of its staff, it needs to articulate what it wants a leader to look like. This requires introspection: you need different qualities to run a tech start-up than a bank.

We spend a lot of time helping businesses work out what leadership looks like to them. Like any part of a skills framework, getting this right means digging into the definitions: not just ascertaining that you want a “galvanising” leader but investigating what “galvanising” means, in the context of your business.

Once you have your definitions, you can be a lot more picky about content. Filtering only to show content that teaches your definition of leadership provides two key benefits. First, you can be sure that the leaders you get are the ones you want. Second, learners won’t panic and flee in the face of 60,000 bits of training.

Stage 2 - just because skills are “soft” doesn’t mean they’re pliable

HBR chalks leadership deficiencies up to a couple of particular gaps. One is the skills gap, where the skills potential leaders are offered don’t match the ones they need. The other is the motivation gap, where the skills businesses want don’t match what employees want.

Stage 1 solves about half of the skills gap problems. If you successfully define leadership, the body of learning you put on offer can match it. But the fact that the majority of the skills leaders need to learn are “soft” (decision-making, communication, EQ etc.) raises another problem. The process of learning these is less binary than “hard” skills.

For example, nobody is born with the ability to code in Python, or just picks it up in every-day life. So, if your business’s leadership mandated python capabilities, you would just put it on everyone’s curriculum.

But, skills like communication, strategic thinking and charisma are unevenly distributed in two people with identical technical credentials. They are skills developed across people’s whole lives, not just their working lives. And it’s very hard to judge someone’s competency in a soft skill, digitally.

The problem is that if you give the highly skilled person learning they’ve already mastered, they’ll think the programme’s beneath them. Similarly, if you over-challenge a less skilled person, they’ll not gain anything and may well become demotivated and demoralised.

So you need to react to their behaviour to fit the learning to the learner: personalising it. You can use data to get the right learning to the right person at the right time

A good way of making sure the personalisation is landing is through an automated feedback mechanism - make people mark what they’ve found useful and what they didn’t and tweak recommendations accordingly.

This also solves the motivation gap. Personalisation to the individual, along with curation to the firm, helps each user feel a sense of agency and relevance, whilst still fitting within the business’s plan.

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Step 3 - leadership change needs cultural support

Even if you get the perfect content and serve it up on an AI-enhanced platter to each individual learner - leadership values won’t take hold without a good company culture.

Harvard Business School research found that companies need the “fertile soil” of the right culture and systems for the “seeds” of learning to grow. Getting the gardening right requires three connected approaches:

Shake off restrictive structures

Research found that most “star” analysts on Wall Street were unable to regain their status when they moved to businesses which were less supportive of their innovation. The only ones who were able to keep it were those who took their teams with them.

Employees in leadership training are taught to innovate, take risks, and be creative. If the structures around them don’t support that, they’ll quickly revert to what they were doing before. So, for leadership training to last beyond the first few lessons, organisations need to build cultures that are ready to accommodate a new set of leaders.

There are books devoted to culture change and it’s difficult and organisation specific. But, amongst the key problems that need addressing are breaking down barriers between departments, encouraging middle management to create safe spaces for creativity, and ensuring that C-suite is seen to reward the brand of leadership the business decides to promote.

Bring training and reality together

This HBR article argues that “the farther removed the locus of learning is from the locus of application,” the less the learning will be applied. If people learn to lead in situations close to the ones they’d face at work, they’ll be better placed to apply that learning when it comes to the real thing.

Modern learning solutions have found a way to close the gap: bring the learning closer to the process of work. By integrating learning into the places people work - email, Slack, Teams - L&D can make the learning and the application almost simultaneous.

Make it part of something bigger

McKinsey suggests that one way to make digital transformations happen is to package them into larger business moves like new product launches or repositioning. This makes the shift visible and ties it to a business benefit.

Leadership development could try a similar tactic. By getting senior management to champion a leadership initiative and marketing it as part of a business strategy, L&D can increase the likelihood of employees taking notice. Further, making leadership training part of an organisation-wide initiative lowers the chances that departmental siloing will get in the way.

Leadership in 2021

With over half of companies not going fully back to work, leadership won’t be the same in 2021. There will be new cultural challenges, communication barriers, and silos that learning will have to break through to update leadership.

The nature of leaders themselves will have to change too. Some leadership styles work far worse over Zoom. Similarly, streamlining a remote or hybrid team is a whole new category of skill for leaders to master. 

New leadership content will inevitably proliferate around the changing definitions of leadership. More than ever, it's imperative for businesses to work out what their leadership should look like, pick the learning that encourages it, and cut the content that clouds it. 

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