A Pragmatist's Approach to Leadership Development

For more than 12 years I have been helping leaders to develop the quality and quantity of leadership within their businesses and organisations.

And for more than 25 years before that I was a leader within organisations, working to develop both the people and the businesses for which I was responsible.

My experience as both purchaser and supplier of leadership development solutions helps me to see the ‘zone of interest’ where the two parties can come together from their different perspectives on the leadership development solution that can be made to work in each case. I have learned this pragmatic approach as a result of seeing what has been found to work in the often-constrained circumstances in which businesses and organisations find themselves when leadership development investments are on the agenda.

My (balanced) perspective on leadership development recognises the conflict between what is pure and what is achievable, and the balance between what is best for the personal development of each leader and what can provide the most effective leadership capability outcomes for the business.

To me, the reality check for leadership development looks a bit like this:

  • Organisations have a finite but limited annual budget for ‘people development’ that includes technical skills training, conference and networking events, and leadership development programmes. Consequently, leadership development must take its turn at getting budget priority.
  • The budget for leadership development will always be insufficient to cover the full wish list; discipline needs to be applied to identify and run with the higher priorities (as only they will be affordable).
  • The overarching aim of a leadership development programme is to increase the collective leadership capability of the organisation. This is best achieved by increasing the leadership contribution of those individuals best able to make that practice improvement, wherever they may sit in the organisation.
  • The personal development of individual participants is only primary where that coincides with the capability building priorities of the organisation; it is secondary when it coincides only with the career aspirations and future employability of the individual. In normal circumstances these secondary and personal benefits are beyond the scope and budget of the organisation’s leadership development investment.
  • Leaders and managers are time poor; engaging them in their own development and, as importantly, in the development of their direct reports, is a big ask. Only those leaders who value leadership development will prioritise their time for it; some line managers will simply not be up to the task of supporting the leadership development of their direct reports; alternative sources of support will need to be found.
  • Leadership development implies personal change and not every leader or manager is comfortable to do that. A growth mindset is central to a leader or manager developing themselves and supporting their direct reports to do likewise.
  • Leadership development is a never-ending journey for the individual and the organisation. Once they start investing in leadership capability development, businesses need to keep on with it to assure value.
  • Leadership behaviours ‘trickle down’ with all leaders looking further up the structure for role models. If those above model the wrong behaviours, or do not overtly support the right behaviours, then much of the leadership development investment lower down will be unproductive.
  • Leadership development takes place contextually at work – when leaders make changes to their day-to-day leadership practice in their normal work context. This requires two things: workplace support, including coaching conversations that help learners make these changes, and a recognition that this change work will displace other tasks that the learner ordinarily does.

So, taking the above factors into account, the following is how a pragmatic leadership development programme might look:

 1.  Candidate Selection

Not all potential candidates for leadership development will respond to the opportunity with changes to their leadership practice. Some simply can’t, and some won’t. Psychometric testing can help to identify those who are likely to change their practices. Testing is best done at leader recruitment but can also add value as a precursor to leadership development. It may, for example, give cues about emotional intelligence, and levels of pessimism and resilience, that can be addressed during leadership development. However, those identified with narcissistic, misogynistic or sociopathic tendencies are unlikely to make leadership practice changes, nor are those with a fixed mindset.

In the end, you have to play with the cards you are dealt. You can choose to incur the overhead of engaging potentially unproductive candidates in leadership development, or you can use predictive data to simply bypass them.

Internal competition to get on the programme is a good thing; a robust selection process, including line manager endorsement and clear expectations of participants, will support that.

2.  Development Priorities

Resourcing won’t allow all leadership development needs to be met; a selection needs to be made of those with maximum organisation impact as the programme core. Within that core, each participant must also focus on the needs that are a development priority for them.

3600 reviews against the organisation’s leadership competencies framework are an effective way to establish these development priorities. Aggregate results across the leadership cohort will illuminate organisation needs and inform programme content. Individual results will illuminate personal development priorities within the programme for each participant.

If you don’t have a leadership competencies framework for your organisation, you need to get one before you start investment in leadership practice change.

3.  Engagement

Participants need to bind into the programme; investing their hearts and minds in the discovery and change opportunities it presents. For this to happen, the programme structure and processes need to be responsive to the participants’ contexts; sensitive to their other commitments, workload, readily available (line manager) support, and privacy and consents. Pre-programme dialogue with each participant will help with this, as will regular feedback requests and responsive programme changes.

Piloting of the first programme occurrence followed by thorough review will assist with securing participant engagement for future iterations.

4.  Self-Awareness

Leaders need to be well aware of their strengths and failings as the platform from which to change their leadership practices. 360o reviews can provide objective information to support self-awareness. Many participants need help to internalise the message from such reviews; this can require individual review feedback from an external specialist. Unless self-awareness is achieved at the beginning of the programme, a participant will be unlikely to change leadership practices as a result of the programme.

5.  Leadership Development Plan

Participants need to be held to account for changing practices within and beyond their development programme. A personalised leadership development plan enables practice change priorities to be established, preferably based on an (objective) 360o review. It should also prompt regular progress conversations with the line manager or coach to enable and support practice change efforts.

6.  Access to New Ideas, Tools and Methods

Leadership practice breakthroughs require new insights and approaches. Those already available within the organisation and familiar to your participants are proven as ineffective, hence the leadership development needs yet to be met. Find new insights and approaches from external partners; use them to bring the leadership ideas, tools and methods that you currently lack.

7.  Support for Leadership Practice Change

The rubber hits the road for leadership development when participants make improvements to their leadership practices in their own workplace. Doing this is harder than it looks; it requires reflective practice, time and support. For most participants, line managers who have sound coaching skills, are best placed to provide this support. Provision of coaching skills to line managers can be a valuable adjunct to the leadership development programme.

Tier 1 and Tier 2 leaders have particular challenges in changing their workplace practices; typically support from an external coach is most effective here. External coaches may also be helpful for those (unfortunate) participants whose own line managers are not up to the coaching task.

8.  Evaluation and Review

As with all things, you get what you measure in leadership development. Programme value rests on the changes to leadership practice and the consequent organisation-level outcome improvements that take place as a result of the programme.

Prior to the programme, you need to understand the results you seek so you can design, deliver and measure for them. This is a critical first step towards achieving and evidencing value.

Over the medium term, you can measure organisation KPI quantities to register outcome improvements, and you can use ‘before and after’ measures to quantify perceptions about leadership culture and leadership behaviours through surveys.

Over the short term, during and immediately after programme occurrences, you can gather verbal feedback and observations of changes and their impact on outcomes from the participants themselves, their peers, and their line managers or coaches who are close to those individuals. Qualitative information is a critical component of short term measurement because it is easy and quick to access. Short term evaluations are important sources for making dynamic change to programmes to better achieve engagement and change.

At ODI we recognise that leadership capability development is both contextual and collective; requiring a partnership approach to design and development, and a customised, in-house approach to delivery, support for change, and evaluation. Talk To Us about your leadership development needs; we have the experts and expertise to help you.