Letting Go of Traditional Leadership Development



The market for leadership development solutions is enormous. More than $14 billion is spent by corporations on various aspects of leadership development, and there are more than 70,000 books and videos on the topic. 

Surveys of the top challenges business leaders face inevitably show improving leadership pipelines always comes out near the top. The Global Leadership Forecast of 2018 showed that only 14 percent of executive respondents had a strong bench of leaders, two-thirds believed a new leadership model is needed, and 64 percent said developing their next generation of leaders was a top challenge.

Why is leadership such a burning issue? Quite simply, companies now need a new breed of leaders. As organizations become flatter and more dynamic, every professional or line worker is often thrust into a leadership position, no matter their role.

Modern leadership models are focused on leading in a network. Leaders drive results through influence, building inclusive teams, and staying close to customers in environments with constant change and interruption. They empower people, show a willingness to experiment, and focus on developing their teams. 

This view is very different from leadership models of the past that emphasized positional leadership—leading through the power of your title, job level, and experience. 

Certainly today, companies still need to track potential business leaders and make sure there is a pipeline for every major role. But rather than channel people through an industrial leadership development machine, we need to do leadership development in a more agile way.

Consider the fact that learning to lead is a long journey for everyone, informed by experience and many other factors. Modern leadership development should facilitate this journey in a strategic, mission-aligned way. Ultimately it comes down to the four Es. 

  • Education: This is where most vendors, academic institutions, and books are focused. Certainly, education is important. Everyone in business needs to understand basics of business, setting goals, and managing work and projects, as well as the product, service, and operational rhythms of the company. 
  • Experience: While you can study leadership and management principles, the only way to actually learn to lead is by doing it. While some of us have traits that serve us well as leaders, we still learn leadership skills over time. Employees should have the opportunity to lead projects, programs, teams, or operational initiatives that can help them develop leadership muscle.
  • Exposure: The best lessons in leadership come from observing, talking with, and getting feedback from others. I spent almost two years early in my career as the executive assistant to a senior IBM executive. I watched him handle dozens of difficult situations, and he often asked me to lead meetings or do projects to help him. It was one of the most important experiences I ever had.
  • Evaluation: We all need ongoing coaching, feedback, evaluation, and objective advice to continually improve as leaders. As academics often say, there is a “curse of expertise” that we all experience—once we think we’re good at something, we stop trying to learn. 

The big question is how can we offer solutions that span these areas? Traditional vendors and universities focus on the first category. But once you move beyond education, you’re more or less on your own. And this is why leadership development is so difficult but also so exciting.

A new set of solutions is arriving that can help you develop more comprehensive, agile leaders. Following are examples of new offerings in new categories. 

Applying artificial intelligence (AI) and positive psychology to coaching. One sample company started with the idea that positive coaching can be one of the most valuable tools for development and went on to build an AI-driven solution that lets individuals self-assess their coaching needs, and then helps them identify an appropriate coach from an extensive network. The solution also administers and moderates online or telephone-based coaching sessions. Any company can buy into the network and leaders at any level can set up coaching relationships with expert coaches aligned with their individual and the company’s needs. The solution also offers micro-learning, nudges, and assessment tools to help leaders learn and improve. 

Immersive learning. The second category of groundbreaking new solutions for leadership is the fast-growing category of virtual reality solutions for soft skills. These solutions offer people the opportunity to learn from simulations of real-world management challenges. By learning to handle such difficult situations, learners can avoid making mistakes in the heat of the moment, when likely under pressure. Several companies offer solutions in this category.

Action platforms for performance management. The third category of new leadership development solutions is a new breed of performance management solutions. These companies are building agile goal-setting and performance management tools that move beyond traditional performance management by helping employees take action. Not only do they help employees and managers set goals, share progress and results, and assess performance and potential, they now include built-in survey and AI-based assessment tools that let employees evaluate managers and give managers direct feedback. These solutions are not leadership development offerings per se, but in many ways, they’re better. They focus on the experience of learning by giving managers (and teammates) direct feedback in the flow of work—through data collected directly from the individuals people work with every day.

Self-directed learning. We are now flooded with providers delivering many types of self-directed learning. There are many options from which to choose in this category. 

Now is the time to recraft your approach to leadership development. Talk with your peers on the top management team about the leadership values you want to reinforce, then embed them into your performance, development, and succession conversations. We must let go of the past and offer ways people can develop leadership skills on the job, in the natural flow of work, and in the real world whenever possible.

One critical point to keep in mind. Nothing will work unless the leadership team agrees that developing and coaching leaders is a critical part of their job. Make sure your CEO and other C-suite leaders take this problem seriously, put time into coaching and modeling leadership, let people fail safely, and allow employees to move from role to role. These are the ingredients to learning leadership in the 21st century.

Originally posted on HRPS blog.


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