Many programs fail to deliver on their promise to grow leaders. How do you design a leadership development program in a way that avoids the many pitfalls that undermined those efforts in other organizations? There are a few key factors that need to be addressed.
Real growth as a leader requires changes in behavior, and most leadership development programs are structured around seat time, events, and activities, having little to do with bringing about any real change. Growth requires people to engage in deep and meaningful reflection, self-assessment, and behavior change. Taking courses, reading books, and watching videos by themselves are not enough to bring about change.
Context matters. There is no one-size-fits-all body of knowledge and skills that leaders need to have in order to be successful. Leadership is situational, and situations change over time, often rapidly. Also, leadership challenges vary by the breadth and scope of a leader’s responsibility. Some managers have no direct reports but manage an important system or business process. The skills needed there are not the same as those needed to manage people. Nor are either of those skills the same as managing a large, cross-functional enterprise. Leadership development programs need to take context into account.
Leadership development programs are often outsourced to universities and other third party providers with little involvement from the current leadership team. As a result, only a small amount of what they learn transfers on the job. With the most successful leadership development programs, the leadership team feels accountable for developing the next generation of leaders, sees it as central to their role, and actively participates in it.
Organizations around the globe are spending billions on leadership development programs in the hopes of (1) retaining top leaders, (2) keeping them engaged, and (3) growing their leadership bench, so they can promote from within to maintain leadership continuity. However, many of the same organizations continue to lose top talent to competitors, spend exorbitantly to hire externally, and struggle to maintain leadership continuity as senior leaders retire. So, is it working?
Many leadership development programs fail to bring about any real behavior change, which limits the kind of impact they could potentially have in terms of producing better leaders. Many organizations take a once-and-done approach to leadership development. You go through a one-size-fit-all program, you ascend into leadership, and then there is little expectation that you will continue to grow beyond that. They may invest in external programs, but often they fail to integrate those programs into the leadership fabric of the organization, so that leadership development feels disconnected from the real work.
When programs are not change-oriented, not contextually relevant, and not integrated into the organization, it is difficult to produce any serious ROI from that program.