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Leadership Development: Best Practice Strategies for Success

March 18, 2008

How do you develop great leaders? This question has been at the heart of social science and psychology since before the names of either discipline existed. The question is not merely academic. Great leaders bring great results, while poor leaders often bring poor results. Multiple studies have found that an active leadership development program is one of the top “renewal” processes critical to sustaining a long-term competitive advantage. Understanding this, many organizations have deployed programs to develop great leaders. However, what is the best way to do it?

What is Leadership Development?

To frame this paper, here is our definition of leadership:

“Leadership creates a driving, emotional response in followers that inspires them to achieve mutually desired conditions or a vision of the situation. Leadership is a dynamic mutual bond between the leader and followers based upon trust and credibility.”

Therefore, effective leadership development programs achieve three main outcomes. First, they enable the leader to understand his/her strengths and blind spots through valid assessments and self-awareness activities. This outcome is straightforward since it is quantifiable and due to the availability of resources. Second, they develop the ability to bond with, and influence others both formally and informally. This requires knowledge, application, and practice. This outcome is also relatively straightforward to achieve.

They also develop the leader’s ability to accurately interpret the factors that define a situation to apply the right techniques to achieve results; the third outcome. This outcome is challenging because the factors that define a situation are dynamic. The effective leader must recognize the factors and make the right decisions even when the leader has never faced the situation before. In addition, as a leader develops and matures, the leadership scope generally increases moving from one-to-one, team, unit, organization, and eventually the external community. The required skills vary, as does the time between cause and effect (Time horizon of results) and lack of “certainty.” Many programs fail to prepare adequately the developing leader for the complexity of real-life situations that she/he will face in a current or future role.

What Principles Underlie a Great Leadership Development Program? 

It is difficult to compare best-practice approaches because many organizations with cutting-edge programs do not publish their process or results. Why? Because they realize it is a fundamental competitive advantage. By combining published case studies and best practice research, there are eight principles that underlie an effective leadership development program. 

1. It Mirrors the Organization’s Leadership Approach & Values

Different industries and organizations take different approaches to leadership. For example, accountability often drives a call center or sales organization while a human services organization stresses values. An off-the-shelf approach may actually create values conflicts and expectations that set program participants up for failure. Is your leadership development program tailored to your organization’s leadership approach?

2. It Has the Right Content

The knowledge and skills of great leadership are cumulative and iterative. The leader needs certain competencies in a position. As the leader’s career progresses, the needs change over time. There are different dimensions a leader must master. For example, leaders must master the technical side of their area, as well as the people side, the planning side, personal mastery side, and more. At a minimum, leaders need at least three of the six major content areas. Does your program use a "best practice" model that contains the right buckets of leadership content?

3. It is Tiered Based on Level (Use model?)

Leaders at different organizational levels require a tiered program that addresses the unique needs of that level. Why? As leaders progress up the ladder, they must broaden their perspective, develop comfort with uncertainty, and make decisions for which unintended consequences always occur. Initially, new leaders need the knowledge and skills necessary to impact their immediate accountable area. Experienced leaders need the knowledge and skills to impact those outside of their positional authority, while senior leaders must be able to impact those outside of the organization. If your program does not have at least three tiers (depending on the size of your organization), it will not provide the breadth and depth of competencies enabling your leaders to thrive. Does your program offer linked tiers based upon the positional levels of your leaders?

4. It Provides Experimentation & Practice

Many of us played with wooden blocks as children. Generally, we did not have someone observing us explaining that if the center-of-gravity of the top block moved over the outside edge of the block beneath it, the top block would fall. We learned this on our own through trial and error. Even if someone had told you this, would you have been able to apply it without some experimentation? Would you have remembered it if you had not stacked the blocks yourself?

Leadership is made up of multiple applied competencies that cannot be learned from online learning, from a lecture or a book. Each competency must be experienced and practiced in different situations, and with different levels of risk. Placing the leader in situational activities outside of his/her normal experience, broadens the ability of the leader to apply the concepts in diverse, unknown situations. This reinforces critical questioning, thinking and decision-making competencies. In the classroom, using case studies, role-playing, and simulations provides positive situational learning. Outside of training, these experiences include special projects, job rotation, formal and informal mentoring, and more. All of these allow the leader to try a new situation and fail in a safe environment. If your program does not force competency application outside of the leader’s comfort zone, it is not achieving the results you desire. Does your program prepare leaders for diverse situations that challenge their time horizon, decision-making, and system thinking abilities?

5. It is Ongoing & Distributed to Allow Mastery

Effective development efforts do not provide a few learning events and declare the leader developed! They provide a series of linked, carefully constructed, and increasingly challenging events over years, not days. They allow adequate time for the leader to master one leadership "competency" before developing pursuing another. If instructor-led learning is used, workshops should be spaced at least 3 weeks apart to allow time for practice and mastery, but not more than 6 weeks apart otherwise linkage diminishes. Published examples from Intel, General Electric, 3M and other leadership pioneers suggest that leaders participate in at least 12 days of structured activities (though not classroom training) every year. During slow times or downturns, this number is increased, not reduced. Is your program devoting at least 12 days of focused development time distributed throughout the year per leader to achieve your organization’s desired business results?

6. It Creates an Emotional Response By Exposing the Leader to Different Perspectives

Do we only learn things through our five senses, or do we learn through our emotions as well? Learning is not merely what we experience through external stimuli, it is also the factors of our emotional outlook. Just as we create an emotional response in others, effective leadership development exposes leaders to different perspectives that affect the leader to see things in different ways and through different eyes. Adults place more meaning on knowledge gained through personal insight or discovery. By engaging the learner in a whole-mind and body experience, the information is more-readily processed and retained. Does your program provide leaders with different experiences that affect their own mental models and outlook?

7. It Combines Leading Theory with Proven Best Practice, then Practice and Feedback

The renowned quality management theorist Dr. Deming, used to say that "experience without theory was useless." Tell someone how to lead others then walk away. Will they be able to lead? Give them a book on leadership. Could they effectively inspire others? Our ancestors did not learn to hunt for their food simply by listening to their elders. The elders passed their knowledge to the younger generations who then practiced what they had learned, through either mock hunting or the real thing. The human brain learns through a combination of knowledge and experience validated through feedback. We learn best when we can put knowledge into a context that has relevance through practice. Practice allows us to use the information in a context that we best understand as individual learners. How do we reinforce understanding? Through observation of practical exercises such as role-play or other mastery application activities with structured feedback. Feedback ensures that the experience gained through practice is properly filtered and reinforced. This instructional method engages the mind and body. Physical activity aids understanding and retention. At a minimum, quarterly learning events combined with feedback and assessment, and practiced through experiential means (e.g., special projects, etc.). Does your program use activities with structured feedback to reinforce learning and ensure performance change?

8. It Uses Multiple Modes of Learning

People learn at many different levels instead of merely the cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels. We have a tendency to structure our learning experience on a single aspect (usually verbal). We sit and listen to speakers as we scribble notes so that we can review them later in a setting that is more conducive to our learning preference. However, ask yourself this; Do I learn more and retain the information better when I sit in a lecture or when I put to use the knowledge and theories that I have learned? The answer, of course, is obvious. It stands to reason that learning is best approached through the natural method of a whole-mind, whole-body experience. By applying verbal, visual, physical, emotional, and intuitive aspects into the learning experience, the facilitator will ensure that, the greatest number of leaders understand, retain, and apply the information. Briefings, presentations, guided discussions, computer based training, distance learning, and activities based training all have their places in the training realm. Poly Modal Learning merely integrates their underlying principles into a more effective and efficient learning methodology. Does your leadership development program use multiple modes of learning to develop knowledge and skills?



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