What’s the Recipe for Effective Leadership Development?


Reflections from the 2017 HCI Learning & Leadership Development Conference
By Lisa Bullock

If you had to come up with analogy for learning and development in today’s environment, based on the recent Human Capital Institute’s Learning & Leadership Development Conference where we participated, it would be this: A dish is only as good as the quality and combination of its ingredients.

Leadership development is like a basic recipe, as Joe Livigni of Capsim Management Simulations noted; the core ingredients have to be there and they have to be solid. But then individualized tastes and requirements come into play. Just as each organization has different strategic business outcomes, each leadership development strategy must align with that strategic growth focus. If the learning isn’t relevant to the business, it won’t be relevant to the managers. And without relevance, the learning fades. The upshot: The time, money and effort in training has been spent, but there’s little to no resulting impact on the business.

By the same token, more isn’t always better, whether you’re talking about ingredients or skills. Almost $20 billion was spent on leadership development in 2016, and around 1,200 new leadership development books were published in 2017. That’s a lot of content. But just as there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to developing leaders, there’s also no one single profile of the ideal leader. Likewise, you don’t have to be good at everything to be a good leader. Instead, leaders need to focus in on the key skills and competencies they need for their particular role and that today’s realities demand.

That said, there are some qualities that cut across the board in the current environment—things like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability, collaboration, and the ability and willingness to help their people become problem solvers. Problem-solving is an important skill for leaders, too, but in an increasingly complex world, they alone can’t have all the answers. They need to be able to rely on and support their teams in coming up with solutions to their own tough challenges. For many leaders, this will mean a change in mindset, moving from a more directive leadership style to a coaching and collaborative approach. And that means L&D will have to make sure their developmental strategies are designed to facilitate this shift.

With this context in mind, the “secret sauce” of leadership development is a learning solution that includes:

  • Facilitated discussions that spark new ideas and insights about how to solve real work challenges
  • Shifting mindsets by providing “aha” moments that connect at an emotional level, versus just an intellectual exercise
  • Sustaining momentum and embedding new behaviors through ongoing coaching

Another challenge leaders will continue to grapple with is the ongoing employee engagement crisis. According to Gallup, on 13% of employees are engaged. The majority—63%—say they’re not engaged, while almost a quarter (24%) of all employees are actively disengaged. Solving this engagement challenge has to be a leadership priority since it’s eating away at business results. Research shows that not only do engaged employees perform 20% better, companies with engaged employees outperform the rest by up to 202%.

Here, too, leadership skills like emotional intelligence, empathy and coaching will be essential. Engagement comes from the emotional connection people have with their work. A sense of purpose and connectedness to the mission drive motivation and help fuel someone’s inner passion to achieve more, for themselves as well as the organization.

These same factors come into play when you look at an organization’s ability to recruit and retain top talent. Consider what Millennials say they’re looking for in a job: In addition to things like flexible work arrangements, they want to work for companies whose values align with their personal values. They’re looking for development opportunities, recognition for performance and continuous feedback from their managers.

It’s not just about rewards and recognition, though. Leaders also have to be able to have the tough conversations and draw out different perspectives so that everyone feels heard and encouraged to contribute. If there’s one mantra that leaders need to keep in mind, it’s this: Communicate—constantly.

So what does all this mean for L&D and HR professionals?

The recipe for effective leadership development isn’t just about mixing in a pinch of this competency and a tablespoon of that one; it has to be designed for each leader’s requirements, based on their personal and professional growth goals. And just as important as building skill, it has to shift mindsets and reinforce the right culture ingredients. That’s how you drive a long-term competitive advantage.

As Barbara A. Trautlein, Ph.D., of Change Catalysts, LLC reminded conference attendees, getting the “soft stuff” right isn’t easy. But it is what makes the “hard stuff” possible.

 


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