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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Starmer

5 Essential Tests To Ensure You Get The Right Leadership Development Provider

For many organisations undertaking a leadership development initiative, going to an outside provider is a must. It makes sense to seek expertise in such an important area. But what guarantees will you have that your providers are the experts they claim? Being impressed by a sales presentation, a striking course curriculum, or even taking references about a provider will only get you so far. When making your selection there are factors to be considered that may not be so obvious. Here are five essential tests to help you sort the wheat from the chaff:

1. Make sure the provider really knows what they're talking about

This sounds glib and obvious, but are you sure about the credentials of your supplier to train real leadership skills? There are a lot of less-than-effective providers out there.

What you are seeking are not just able trainers – they're plentiful – but knowledge experts who understand the subject inside out, who can combine their intimate familiarity with the material with an outstanding ability you create an impact upon your people. They may need to be capable of going head-to-head with some of your most important people, persuading those individuals to not only adopt new practices and behaviours but also (potentially) to change or abandon ingrained old habits. Those who you let loose on your managers need to have the credibility to be capable of earning their respect and not be seen as lightweights.

They must be experienced, intellectually robust in their belief in the ideas they will expound upon, and highly effective influencers. They must be leaders themselves.

Be rigorous in your examination of prospective providers. Really test them. Have them define leadership. Don't reveal what you think leadership is. Let them tell you. Have them explain what specific components leadership is made up of. How do you get someone else to follow? Run a mile if they tell you that a definition of leadership is something they let participants conclude upon. These are not the knowledge experts you need.

Is what they say compelling? Are you convinced? Have they made you sit up and think? There’s no room for passé, “yes, we’ve heard this before” stuff in this arena. You should be left excited and feeling that you’ve learned something, just from meeting them.

Don’t be swayed by amiability. Having the potential to be popular with your people should never be a criterion for selection. They don’t have to be liked. They do have to be highly effective. Avoid 'airy-fairy' types who can't be pinned down and don't get the wool pulled over your eyes by bluster and BS. Some ‘professional’ trainers are very good at speaking a lot but saying nothing. Probe. If you’re not wholly convinced by what they’ve revealed to you, be aggressive in your challenge of their intellect and see how they stand up to it. Can they handle the pressure? The chances are they'll need to be able to.

Neither should knowledge and expertise by assumed just because of the titles or associations of those whom you approach. In particular, avoid being seduced by the hallowed halls of the prestigious management schools. Just because they have kudos associated with their name doesn’t mean that they are the right provider.

Most business schools offer numerous 'leadership' programs as components of their sophisticated curricula, but ironically, they will seldom teach anything practical about this particular subject.

By their nature, they tend to be staffed by academics or former ‘leaders’, and the treatment of the subject is almost an esoteric or philosophical one. Leadership is studied, examined and dissected; but knowledge is nothing without action and I guarantee they'll be short on imparting practical techniques.

Sure enough, their approach is unlikely to draw criticism from any participants you do send their way. They won't feel they've been short-changed. But this has more to do with the opportunity to mix with the cream of the international businesses that are the fodder for their events. The sense of elevation that it engenders blinds everyone to the recognition that as far as learning about how to get people to follow them goes, they have been sold a pup.

Don’t get me wrong, the majority of their offerings are totally valid and worthwhile, but their programs are best reserved for when the need is to get to grips with the more technical aspects of senior management, such as understanding market forces, business ethics, corporate governance, strategy etc. etc.

But not leadership.

2. Make sure the provider isn’t just going along with whatever you want

If your organisation already has its own sacrosanct ideas about what leadership is and should be, give those who will just go along with whatever you say a wide berth.

If a provider is not prepared to challenge you and question existing beliefs, they're either desperate for the work (and too scared to challenge a potential client for fear of being shown the door); or they don't really have their own ideas about what leadership actually is, and you're not in the presence of a real leadership expert.

You're looking for a thought leader, not a follower or a recycler of other people’s research. If the provider doesn’t contest what you say (fearlessly), or at the very least add to it significantly, it’s unlikely they can teach you anything you don’t already know.

3. Make sure the provider can explain precisely how what they will do will develop your people’s skills

At a first meeting, you wouldn't necessarily expect a provider to outline every aspect of what they will do unless you are opting for a pre-existing, rather than a bespoke event.

If you are looking for the former, then by all means have them spell it out, detailing precisely how and why it will work. If it's the latter, wait until they come back with a full proposal.

But make sure you know what you're getting into. Challenge their processes. Challenge their methods. If it doesn't sound right, the chances are it's not. If they propose an innovative approach to leadership learning (usually described as "we think outside the box"), make sure this doesn’t mean kooky or bizarre.

Although well intended and interesting, promoting followership may not be learned whilst expressing yourself through art, meditating in nature, learning stone walling, practicing animal husbandry, or surviving on a remote island. (And yes, I've come across all of these and more!). If the participants enjoy a program this is not automatically the same as developing as a result of the experience.

Beware that descriptive vagueness on the part of a provider often masks a tenuous grasp on what benefits will actually be delivered. The more imprecise the description they give you, the less likely it is that their offering will have any real effect on your people.

4. Make sure the provider can measure current levels of leadership effectiveness, and provide metrics to monitor performance improvement resulting from their intervention.

If anybody tells you that you can't measure leadership effectiveness, they're talking out of their backsides.

Measurement is not only an essential prerequisite for allowing people to understand where they are right now, it's vital for proving the value of the investment you make in the training, and in discovering precisely how much effort participants are putting into owning their own development thereafter.

Be assured that the training event itself will do nothing for them. It will merely present the audience with ideas, methods and choices. If you’ve got the right provider, these things will be a given, and the delivery will provide powerful memory hooks. But it's what participants actually do with what is imparted to them that counts.

If your provider can't quantify their progress with precise measurement of whatever it is they're going to teach your people, they're a waste of space. Don’t be fobbed off with stories about how esoteric or subjective leadership is, and therefore how difficult it is to measure with precision. This merely reveals that they don’t understand what you should be measuring, and therefore, they don't really understand leadership!

5. Make sure the provider offers a guarantee that you'll get your money back if you're not satisfied.

Good luck with this one.

In thirty years, I'm the only provider I know of who offered this, contractually; but I’m sure there are others.

It's something you have a right to.

At the end of the day, you're buying a product and you're probably going to have to spend a lot of money. Why shouldn't a training event come with guarantees like any other consumable?

If your provider won't offer you that, they're not really that confident in their product are they? So why should you be?

Choose wisely. After a fashion, whomsoever you select as your provider has the potential to become a leader of sorts for your people. As such their influence may be beneficial to the organisation, of no consequence or value whatsoever, or even be misleading and deleterious in ways that may not be apparent for years.

A poorly made decision about which leadership development provider to use may come back to bite the business (and those who made the bad choice) in ways inconceivable in the moment. At best, it's just a huge waste of money.

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