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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Starmer

The 5 Things Effective Leadership Development Initiatives Must Contain (But Usually Don’t)

It may be supposed when a business invests in something as relevant and potentially beneficial as a leadership development initiative, that they will have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure a return on the not inconsiderable investment it entails. However, after two decades of encountering and observing first-hand the staggering diversity of what are assumed to be 'sound interventions', I feel obliged to point out the five key things such initiatives must contain to be successful; but most often don't…

1. Sound Content

This sounds like a no-brainer doesn't it? Yet all too frequently I have seen curricula that are simply glorified management training programs that will have precious little effect upon participant's abilities to lead. In part, this seems to be due to a total misunderstanding of what leadership is, something which is not necessarily the fault of sponsoring businesses.

Definitions of leadership promulgated by development companies (and perhaps blindly accepted by their clients) may only reflect what those companies believe can be trained. But being 'training professionals' does not mean that they have a clear or accurate definition of leadership themselves. All too often they are touting (at best) imprecise, second-hand ideas, simply to reflect what their people are capable of delivering. There are some ‘interesting’ (for this read "astonishingly bad and inadequate") examples out there.

In-house programs may not be any better. Content decided by committee, culled from favourite management biographies, or derived from an exploration of the skills that are demonstrably absent in incumbent leaders, are unlikely to reflect what actually makes people want to follow. Since leadership may only accurately be defined as the ability to promote followership, the subject matter of the initiative absolutely must reflect this.

2. Appropriate Methodology

Leadership is a practical, active, interpersonal, necessarily extroverted, skill based, totally hands-on 'doing' activity. (Although there’s a lot of thinking about the doing!) Back in the workplace, it is entirely about personal delivery, and any attempt to train leadership skills must reflect this. Therefore, of necessity, development must be experiential.

An intellectualised classroom-based approach is folly. A grasp of the facility to lead may not be gleaned through the use of endless discussion and consideration, the inclusion of technical subjects, the use of psychometrics, or indeed any one of a number of naval gazing techniques that I have seen pass for development vehicles. It is not a piece of ‘personal reflection’ learning (although inevitably personal reflection is required to draw conclusions regarding necessary change).

Mercifully, understanding what leadership is does not require too much complex explanation. Therefore, the ‘talk and chalk’ component of the event need be no more than (maybe) 10%. Input, however, should be incremental so that participants may understand fully, piece by piece, the rather sophisticated way the multiple levels of action and impact relate to one another.

But actually developing the skills that promote followership is something else. Participants must have ample opportunity to practice what is learned, experience the pressures of real-time leadership challenges, review their personal effectiveness, and watch and analyse others in their attempts to lead. This requires extended, illustrative and impactful exercises that are contextually relevant to the workplace.

3. A Conducive Environment

The importance of the subconscious connection that we establish between what we learn and where we learn it is often misunderstood. Leadership development that is literally conducted in-house is almost always guaranteed to fail for a variety of reasons, principal amongst which will be the ‘distraction factor’ and a simple lack of detachment from day-to-day activities.

The learning environment should serve two principal purposes. It should be able to provide enough variety and interest to support experiential development exercises, and be unusual enough to create abundant memory hooks for the learning imparted. For years after the event, participants will need to be able to cast their minds back to the occasions on which they imbibed of powerful development experiences. Standard classroom training simply won’t provide this.

4. Proper Measurement

For the individual attendee, if they don’t know where their starting point is, how can they know where they've got to get to, or where their challenges lie? For businesses, how will they know that their investment has been made wisely thereafter if the results are as intangible as many would have you believe?

In this context (as in so many others) ‘happy sheets’ will be a spectacular waste of time. Participant feel-good factor is irrelevant. Leadership is comprised of a skill set that is infinitely measurable, even though it can appear intangible. By using the right product, all of the metrics that a focused individual, intent on maximising their potential, and the key data any penny-wise and (hopefully) supportive business might require, may be provided.

5. Adequate Time

This is so often the one luxury that most organisations are not prepared to give to leadership development events. There is some considerable irony in this. Leadership is one of the most important and beneficial skills that managers may develop. In time, with increasing seniority, its significance to the business may well outstrip the technical and managerial skills an individual might (initially) have been employed to utilise.

Effective development requires briefing, preparation, attendance, de-briefing and on-going follow-up if its impact (and the investment) is to be maximised. Yet whilst businesses are often only too happy to support extended absences and even sabbaticals for technical and managerial skills learning, allotting adequate time for leadership development is frowned upon. Perfunctory and wholly deficient time resource is afforded to it. And whilst it may be claimed that those who are leaders are “too senior to be spared”, this fallacious and self-defeating argument is in all probability due to the many ridiculous beliefs about leadership I discussed in a previous article. Irrespective, it is a folly that invalidates many initiatives that might otherwise have had potential.

You may observe that I have not referenced financial investment. Oddly, I have found this to be a secondary consideration in the success of an intervention and of less importance than any of the elements above. This is probably because even if you throw endless pots of money at an event, if you've got these five wrong, your initiative is already fundamentally flawed!

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