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May 24, 2021

Today, if you make the case that people leaders are the critical focus for organizational success, you will meet with little resistance. This represents a significant change from just a few decades ago, when market dominance was largely determined by whether you had superior technology. Using tech to optimize supply management, recruitment, and manufacturing, top companies were able to create substantial process improvements that allowed for an obsessive focus on quality. This set them apart from their competitors. 

That was then. Now, tech-supported processes and quality enhancements are no longer the differentiators they once were. They are the admission ticket that organizations need in order to play. As a result, a focus on people leaders has taken on increasing importance. 

As HR practitioners, we’ve always known that people leaders make all the difference in our organizations. In fact, we’ve even made big investment decisions in an effort to develop them. And yet, $370 billion spent globally on leader development hasn’t produced the expected (or needed) impact.

It’s time to examine what didn’t work in the past so that we can create a solid foundation for understanding how to make these investments pay off in the future. While there are factors that are unique to each company, there are also universal principles that any organization can put into practice. Let’s look at The Big 3.

1. From “One and Done” to Evergreen Support

We generally subscribe to the notion that if we want great leaders, the way to get them is to educate them on how to be great leaders. In the past, this meant simply putting them into a one-time training event and declaring victory. All of our leaders are trained! The problem is that this doesn’t align with the way we teach anything else. 

If you need to learn calculus, do you go to a three-day calculus boot camp? Or do you learn incrementally, building knowledge and skills week after week? One could argue that leadership is at least as complex as calculus. (And at least calculus is predictable, unlike people.) 

It’s not that such training can’t be valuable. It’s that learning shouldn’t end there. Instead, as with any complex subject, we need to use a continuous approach, dripping bits of content over time, practicing and building expertise along the way. Such ongoing support mechanisms reinforce and sustain previous learning. 

But we have to be precise about how we tackle this. Technology can help, but an app that throws a dense library of leader development content at people is destined to be viewed as an afterthought. Instead, what leaders need is dedicated technology that provides just-enough, just-in-time coaching in the flow of work.

2. From Theoretical to Practical 

Libraries have been filled and curricula have been overwhelmed with a plethora of leadership models. These models are usually complex visualizations of a conglomeration of leadership competencies. Sometimes these competencies are based on an author’s idea of what a great leader is. Sometimes they are based on an aggregate of observed behaviors of multiple great leaders. 

Organizations often assess leaders based on these theoretical models and even choose who can lead or who can rise to higher levels of leadership based on these attributes. Unfortunately, this “ideally competent leader” rarely exists in the real world. Great leading isn’t monolithic; it’s idiosyncratic. The best leaders discover, often by chance, what works best for them. 

But it doesn’t have to be by chance. As stewards of your organization’s talent, you need to facilitate leaders finding their own unique best leader model, not force them into nonexistent theoretical rubrics. Don’t provide your leaders with a list of competencies and then try to make them master each and every one. Instead, help them identify and hone their edge by providing tools that offer up personalized, real-world, light-touch support at scale.

3. From Overinvestment to Differentiated Investment

Virtually every organization has a leader gap. With limited dollars to go around, decision-making must take into account where the biggest ROI will be seen. This raises the uncomfortable question of whether you should be developing your existing leaders or finding new, better ones. 

However, any talent recruiter can tell you that outstanding leaders are a needle in the proverbial haystack. So that settles it: You need to develop your current leaders. 

But what if we thought about this differently? Imagine if, instead of trying to develop some of your leaders into great leaders, you shifted your efforts to ensuring that all of your leaders were proficient

Proficient leader practices are attainable for virtually every leader at every level. The data show that even the world’s not-so-best leaders can adopt the one deceptively simple practice shared by the world’s best leaders: checking in with their team members frequently about near-term future work. 

Data shows that this simple practice leads to employees being two times more likely to be enthusiastic about their employer, three times more likely to have confidence that they will be recognized for excellent work, and nearly 2.5 times more likely to be fully engaged. 

The good news is that we have the ability to teach every leader how to check in, simply and quickly. We can provide every leader with support tools to sustain this practice with a reasonable investment, and we can achieve this in a personalized way. While the notion of making every leader an exceptional leader is alluring, it’s important to know that the impact of proficient leaders is substantial. 

Developing leaders effectively is the most untapped competitive advantage. It’s not that we don’t prioritize it, or budget for it, or make the effort. It’s that we’ve been going about it the wrong way. The conventional approach — training leaders in a complex methodology in a one-time event under the assumption that every leader is going to be a great leader — has not served leaders or the organization well up to now. And there’s no reason to think it will in the future. 

It’s time to fundamentally shift our approach to one that is simple, practical, and based on evidence. Start by looking at the three areas above. Your differentiation awaits.