Rethinking Traditional Leadership Development

As the saying goes, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” The current storm of the pandemic is no exception. Despite the human and economic devastation wrought by Covid-19, there are opportunities that are emerging from this experience. One of those bright spots is a recognition and sense of urgency that we need to do better when developing leaders. 

That theme has become increasingly apparent during conversations with our coaching clients and organizational leaders over the past several months. They share a growing sense of dissatisfaction with traditional leadership development efforts. The shifts in how we work brought on by the pandemic have only amplified the inadequacies of how we select and develop leaders. 

It’s not as if everyone isn’t striving for success. Organizations invest heavily in a variety of leadership training programs. Historically, senior leadership identify the best performers for future leadership roles and set them on a path to take on more responsibility. Unfortunately, too often companies end up disappointed when leaders, especially new leaders, fail to perform as expected. And those new leaders are equally disappointed that they were not prepared for a role they may have long coveted.

At many organizations, the leadership selection process is not nearly as rigorous, intentional, or comprehensive as it should be. All too often, people are selected for promotion into leadership roles because they were top performers as individual contributors. Yet there are countless examples of the top salesperson stumbling when promoted to sales manager, or the software developer who stalls when asked to become a team leader. 

Some organizations promote people into leadership roles without even asking individuals if they’re interested in leading a team. They make the assumption that everyone wants to lead. Yet there are many people who want to pursue a career that is focused on deepening domain expertise or building a broader portfolio of skills.  

This can be especially problematic in organizations that don’t offer opportunities for advancement other than through a managerial role. We worked with one company that created a specialized career path for “technical leaders,” which focused on providing opportunities to develop technical expertise and apply that to a wider suite of opportunities. 

While those who chose this path might not make it into the C-suite, that was fine with them because they weren’t remotely interested in going there. Instead, their career prize was being on the cutting edge of new product development or pursuing recognition as a “distinguished engineer.” 

We find it important not to assume that everyone wants to lead. So engage in regular development conversations so that you know exactly what your people are looking for in their careers.  

Meanwhile, many leadership training programs, while valuable for building discrete skills, are often not integrated into a comprehensive whole that addresses the complex and multidimensional aspects of assuming a leadership role. Leadership development must put less emphasis on tools and checklists and instead address the social complexities of the interpersonal relationships that can determine whether someone succeeds in a leadership role. Simply put, leadership is far more nuanced than most training programs prepare participants for.
As you plan for the leadership needs of your organization in 2021, consider the following in rethinking how you select and develop leaders:  

Stop and Assess

When was the last time you took a hard look at how you select and develop your leaders? By “hard look” I mean a dedicated effort to step back and look critically at what’s been successful in your organization, and what has not, across all aspects of your leadership processes. Doing so is an essential first step to reinvigorate, if not reinvent, your leadership development efforts.

Look at your leadership initiatives as a system of integrated principles and processes, not as a series of discrete, disconnected activities. The ultimate goal is a clear understanding of your business’ “leadership lifecycle.” This starts with how you select leaders, how you assess them, how you support their ongoing development, and how you reward and promote them. 

We recommend that any evaluation of your current leadership development practices should include more than just your HR team. Include a variety of people at all levels of the organization, including first-line, emerging, and senior leaders. 

Identify What Leaders Really Need

The needs of any leader will evolve throughout that person’s career. Leadership development is not a one-size-fits-all framework. Typically, organizational leaders encounter four major transition points in their careers:

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  1. Moving from individual contributor to people leader
  2. Moving from people leader to leader of leaders
  3. Moving into a functional or business unit leadership role
  4. Moving to an enterprise leadership role.

Each transition requires leaders to consciously leave behind habits, practices, and perspectives that made them successful in the past and learn new ways of leading. We believe it’s critical to take into account where people are in their careers when developing a strategy to help them be successful.

The 70/20/10 rule has become a popular construct for leadership development programs over the past few years. This rule of thumb states that leadership development consists of 70% on-the-job experience, 20% interactions with mentors and supervisors, and 10% formal training. While that might hold true in the aggregate, it doesn’t necessarily apply to specific points in a leader’s development journey. 

For example, someone preparing for a first-time leadership role might need a larger investment in formal training and a strong emphasis on mentorship. For a more senior leader, experience and networking might play a more prominent role. As the scope and complexity of a leader’s role increases, so, too should the sophistication of your development programs.

Finally, focus on how leaders’ networks should evolve as they advance in their careers. As the entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan has said: “If human capital represents the bricks of an organization, social capital is the mortar that holds it together.” Help your leaders expand their networks by creating learning cohorts or communities of practice. 

These networks are the foundation of what author and researcher Michael Arena calls “Adaptive Space,” which he describes as “as a free trade zone where ideas can be openly explored, debated, shared, and exchanged in such a way that they lead to adaptation for the organization.”

Bring It All Together

Once you assess and rethink what your leaders need, adapt your programs to more closely align with your newfound understanding. Ditch the training programs that aren’t yielding the results you’re looking for. Enhance the programs that are working. 

But don’t rely on the status quo. Integrate everything you are doing into a comprehensive, coherent lifecycle effort that incorporates formal training, mentorships, peer networks and job experience.  

Rethinking how you invest in your leaders can lead to exponential returns to your organization and to your people, now and over the long term. Just as you apply a rigorous set of standards and processes to investments in your physical capital, now is the time to do the same for your leadership capital.  

Bob Biglin has over 30 years of experience in operations, finance, and strategy roles. He most recently served as CFO of an equity portfolio company and corporate treasurer of a Fortune 100 company.

Bob has led a variety of multinational teams throughout his career and has always been interested in the potential of creating environments which lead to exceptional performance. At AEI, he combines his executive experience with graduate studies in organizational dynamics to help senior leaders and their teams to leverage their strengths and their social capital to build high performing organizations. He holds a Master’s in Organization Dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He also serves on the Board of the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House.  Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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