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“My number one priority is developing leadership capability. We have invested in international executive education, run workshops, provided 360 debriefs and one-to-one coaching but don’t seem to be getting traction. Can you help?”

This recent conversation was with the CEO of an international infrastructure business, and of course, the despair is not unusual.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying something like “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome”. Sadly, this appears to be the cycle of organisations and their executive development programs.

So why do so many companies continually invest in programs that do not deliver? A range of articles published by global strategic firm McKinsey’s and the Harvard Business Review suggest that billions of dollars are spent in the USA alone every year on leader development, and most of this is wasted.

Our research and experience show the main reasons why programs fail to produce the desired outcomes are because they fail to address these seven key criteria:

  • Developing contextual awareness by the leaders of the organisational and market environments they are leading within, leading in one environment may be very different to other environments or contexts.
  • Clearly linking the program to the organisation’s strategic aspirations with overt clarity on why the program exists and what it is trying to achieve.
  • Focusing on shifting mindsets and developing skill sets that underpin the organisation’s identified strategic aspirations.
  • A realistic appreciation of the time required to achieve the shifts that are identified and needed.
  • Design flexibility to satisfy adult learning needs i.e. tempo and pace of the program to allow for learning to occur.
  • Linking the development initiatives to the real work of the organisation by applying behavioural experiments or capstone projects back in the workplace
  • Creating peer-based dialogue structures to enable learning transfer beyond the individual.

    In the Leadership Context, all development programs are designed to address these factors. In a recent Podcast, Padraig O’Sullivan, Greg Lourey, Carole Field and Allan Tillack came together to discuss these principles, our approaches, and why there are important.

1. Swim in the context

Contextual awareness is the most critical construct to understand and utilise. Leaders often assume because they were successful in one environment they will be in another environment.

Alternatively, the way they solved problems in one environment can be transferred to the current organisation or situation. Understanding context means paying attention to the organisation itself, in terms of its lifecycle, its culture, way of making decisions, structures, whether it is part of larger organisations such as a country affiliate and they are just internal contextual questions! External contexts include market dynamics, competitor shifts, political environments and a whole raft of macro conditions that might impact the organisation.

When thinking about designing a leadership development initiative, It is imperative to take time to “swim in the context” to develop an understanding of the realities of the circumstances in which the team operates in so the development strategies can be relevant and enabling. One organisation was referred to us through industry contact. They approached us to design a program “just like our friends in XX organisation have”, they said. “They seem to love what you have done for them”. Yet, when we took time to understand the context of this new client, it became clear that their industry, organisational life cycle and management structures were dramatically different. Whilst it would have been easy to “roll off the shelf” a previously designed program for a new client, doing so would have not addressed their real needs.

“We are a bridge. We notice what the CEO can’t and provide an enabling lever complementary to the other business enablers, to deliver organisation’s strategic imperatives.”

Padraig O’Sullivan
Partner, The Leadership Context

2. Know the organisation’s strategic aspirations

Any development work needs to be linked to and in service of achieving the organisation’s strategic aspirations. This will be what all the development work should “hang off”. For senior leaders in an organisation, and particularly the leadership team of the organisation, all leader and team development, in our view, should be in support of enabling a critical strategic initiative.

Padraig O’Sullivan, one of The Leadership Context partners featured in the podcast we mentioned earlier, says, “great development programs strive to get HYPER clear on the 2-3 behaviours that, if enacted consistently and uncompromisingly would have the highest impact on achieving the strategic aspiration”. The important call out here is hyper clear on a narrow but critical set of behaviours. Developing the organisation’s capability to embed these into the organisation’s DNA may be the backbone of the development focus.

Recently we helped one global industrial organisation get hyper clear before embarking on a multi-year development program for almost 100 of their most senior leaders, that the most critical aspect of their strategy was improving their customer centricity. Traditionally they had being very successful as a result of great engineering and product development. Competitors had caught up. Going forward they had to shift from product led focus to being customer led, which did not diminish their great talent in engineering. This clarity created a clear focus in the areas of leader development which were most important for their top 100 leaders. It is within this context that clarity on results to be delivered and the metrics to be used in the assessment of the development program is determined.

3. What is the readiness for change, really?

Most people don’t mind change. When you ask them how different they are from, say five years ago, everyone can point to specific areas of change that have occurred. However, we don’t necessarily like change to be done to us, or mandated on us. When a leadership development program is asking leaders to address the way they think about how they lead and behave differently in order to achieve different outcomes, not everyone is interested!

A critical contextual element is the organisation’s readiness for change. What is the appetite to adapt to different ways and challenge the prized assumptions that become a constraint to the change There are far too many examples of well-designed and documented change management initiatives that fail. Why? They fail because the leaders said they would change, but never did, and therefore, nothing really changes. In our work we spend time identifying the influencers in the team or the organisation that can be enlisted to enable the increased engagement with the upcoming changes. These people play an enormous role in the ripple effect to their peers around them and catalyse the actions towards change.

4. Shifting Mindsets and Skill Sets

Knowing the context and strategic aspirations allows examination of the mindsets needed to enable their achievement. Many development programs fail to achieve sustainable change, as they do not address the shift in thinking needed. Senior leaders have to deal with increasing complexity as part of their roles. The Covid pandemic taught us the reality of a VUCA world and how it impacts all our lives and business decisions. Leaders who have the ability to take a range of perspectives, seek input from many sources tend to have the ability to think differently and address issues that have no known ready-made answers or previously tried playbooks.

Successful development initiatives are good at helping leaders to understand how they currently think, particularly under pressure and how to build perspective-taking capacity, for future scenarios.

“Mind shift changes start with self-awareness and the ability to have perspective about the impact (intentional or otherwise) of actions. Just building the ability to “do” things differently is not enough. Programs need to build the ability and flexibility to ‘think’ differently”

Greg Lourey
Partner, The Leadership Context

5. Are we there yet?

Individual behaviours don’t change quickly so there is no reason to expect fast, sustainable change can be achieved quickly at a collective level. The shifts needed in skill and mindset to enable strategic capability lift cannot be achieved in a 3-day program.

It will take 6, 9, 12, or 18 months. This doesn’t mean that the formal elements of a program will be for this length of time but that the program is not an “event” it is an integrative experience to pace the learning, development, and integration for sustainable change. So, if the organisation’s strategy is worth implementing, then it follows that the capability shift needed to achieve it also has to be worth implementing. This means taking time to do it properly. This is a challenging concept for many organisations to accept. This is a necessary shift in their mindset.

“If you are not willing to accept and invest in the time it will take to develop the capability, are you prepared to tolerate the impact of ineffective leadership in the short term?”

Carole Field
Partner, The Leadership Context

6. Design to enable deep learning and flexibility for each person

  • Meeting participants where they are at individual level and supporting their development to their needs rather than as a sheep dip.

  • Utilising a blended approach – theory, semantic learning, playful learning, strategic execution, teaming, peer and individual work – that come together to allow people to try new or different things or remember what they may have done at other times, providing opportunities to experiment, learn, try, learn and then repeat.

  • Experimentation – making space in the program between modules to allow time to experiment in the application of learning is critical, particularly during times of complexity i.e. Covid.

  • Real-based reflection – building the mind set and skill set to increase self-awareness. Keeping it relevant with “on-the-job” based reflection with the real team and on real issues. Implementing the discipline to explore what worked? What did not? Who can I get feedback from? And how to scaffold the learning so it is not lost and can be shared with others.Applying the pressure to ensure learning – through Cross-functional projects, ideas can be used to bring the learning together in an applied way so that the learning moves from being an academic endeavor to one that is amplifying and enabling the strategy.

  • Tempo – this is not about speed but about enabling focus to maximise learning- people learn in different ways – how to modulate different tempos to enable effective learning.

 “Taking time to experiment back on the job with real teams and colleagues in the realities of our work world is vital to embed new learning. That takes time, but it is time well spent”

Allan Tillack
Partner, The Leadership Context

Organisation Learning Captured Within Peer Group Structures

A lot of executive development investment and growth sits within an individual. While this is great for them and the impact they can individually have, the organisation does not always retain or exploit that learning to build the collective capability. This risk can be mitigated through structures like peer groups (5-7 people) experimenting and sharing their learning. The imperative is to develop thinking as a collective, not group thinking. Developing the approach of thinking broadly and deeply about “Who am   I connected with? Who else needs to be in this? An unexpected by-product is co-creating a shared mindset amongst peers.

Comments on the Current Context

The circumstances we operate in are constantly changing. Taking the impact of Covid as an example. It has demanded organisations respond to unforeseen circumstances and challenges. It has demanded adaption, innovation, and the ability to pivot to deliver in ambiguous and emotional times. A heightened focus on purpose and meaning, giving trust and being trustworthy and along with the need for resilience. There has been a “humanising” on many levels where people have needed to be vulnerable and open about the realities of their personal worlds and the challenges and opportunities that working from home in a lockdown situation foisted upon us.

There has also been a general “myth-busting” around what was previously accepted as being absolutes in how to execute effective leadership and what was required to deliver outcomes. An obvious example of this is thy myth that employees are more productive in a shared office environment. This has been proven to be false. What has been needed is a shift in all players to adapt to the environment. Some have been magnificent, and others have been found wanting. As the context changes the needs and the effective responses also change. What is certain is that a static model of how to deliver as an executive is ineffective in this unpredictable and continually evolving situation.

In our work with leaders, we observe several factors compromising their ability to effectively perform. These include experiences of overwhelm, confusion, exhaustion, and the natural human desire to return to what is known and “normality”. The impact of this is that they have a real fear of slowing down; confusion about priorities and the ability to determine what to start, stop and continue; in the rush, failing to remember and implement what has been learned and applying discipline to actions.

It is in these times of uncertainty that the certainty that strong leaders can provide is more critical than ever.

How to ensure executive development is not a waste of time and money




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