There is a dearth of leadership in today’s organizations. Don’t take my word for it. You can read studies, research, surveys and more studies by some of the most credible researchers around. And there are just as many theories on how to improve the qualities of today’s leaders. One study shows the average company spent $500,000 in 2008 on leadership development, with a range of $170,000 to $1.3 million, averaging a $2,000 spend per leader. But yet, Deloitte reports that, in 2014, less than 50% of the executive leadership surveyed believes their direct reports have the skills to become part of the C-Suite.
After 10 years as a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) in two different organizations, responsible for developing programs to develop leaders, I have my own theory about why we cannot seem to make progress in this critical area. And based on my experience, I think that the $2,000 spent per leader is way low.
So here’s my theory. Well actually, it is three theories that work together.
Executive leaders don’t think they need to learn
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Roger Jones shared research on “What CEOs are afraid of.” According to his research, the “biggest fear is being found to be incompetent” which “diminishes their confidence and undermines relationships with other executives.”
Theorist Chris Argyris tackled this idiosyncrasy in 1991 in his article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” After studying exceptionally talented (and very well paid) management consultants, he realized that they had never failed, so they never learned to learn.
I have seen this same phenomenon with executive leaders. Even though almost every executive leader knows about Jack Welch spending great amounts of time talking with rising leaders at Crotonville, they don’t put two and two together and realize that he was learning as he was talking. He gained as much insight into the nuances of GE as the aspiring leaders gained into leadership.
If CEOs are afraid of being found incompetent, why would they admit that they need to learn?
Executive leaders don’t understand what learning is
I don’t personally care for the term “training,” and have avoided using it during my tenure as CLO. To me, training is passive – someone trains me. Learning, on the other hand, is active; I must take an active role in my own learning.
For far too long, leaders have seen leadership development as “training.” Put them in a class, teach them leadership behaviors, and voila, they will lead. Never was this concept more apparent to me than during my time in healthcare, responsible for both leadership and clinical development. Patient caregivers required academic preparation, simulated learning, monitored mentorship, and enormous amounts of feedback before they could care for the patient. New managers had a four day class and were sent off to “lead” – a highly complex and difficult job – without real development, feedback and practice. The result was managers who made rookie mistakes and put the organization at risk in so many ways.
A class is not learning, and learning has no end. Executives who think that they can develop a program and not participate in the design, implementation and evaluation of the program are wasting their corporate dollars.
Executive leaders do not understand their role in learning
Learning is a process, and a leader must be the steward of that process. It starts with identifying the learning needs, and moves to creating the desire to learn. It incorporates active participation with the learner by asking good questions and helping the learner apply theoretical knowledge to their practical work. It involves providing authentic and helpful feedback, including making a course correction if necessary.
Learning without context does not propel performance and development. It is up to the leader to provide the context and relevance. In one leadership development program, we spent five months between the time that participants were selected until their first face-to-face meeting preparing both them and their leaders for the following year. We caught the executives up on the concepts being taught, provided discussion questions for follow up, actively engaged them in content delivery and networking, and taught the executives to provide authentic feedback. The executives engaged their returning emerging leaders in dialogue because they understood the context, and the emerging leaders were less likely to revert to old habits that had been challenged by the learning.
The program led to a documented 3.1 return on the cost of the program in the first year. Our average spend per participant was slightly higher than the average of $2,000, and we touched only about 10% of our leaders. Of those leaders, 33% were promoted within a year, and 17% took on additional responsibilities.
Let’s bring these three theories back together
Most organizations cannot afford to spend $2,000 for every “leader” in the company, nor should they, necessarily. That is a significant investment in the future, and must be made wisely. The irony, however, is that so much learning occurs outside of formal programs and there is very little cost to making that happen. It does, however, take an intentional and systematic focus by every level of leader to make them effective. Here are some ideas for powerful, leadership-led leadership development.
Acknowledge the role of the leader as a shepherd of learning
Too often leaders walk into a new role without a very clear message and expectation. Articulate their role by stating: “You are now responsible for your department and for the people in your department. That includes their development and their performance. My expectation of you as a new leader is that you demonstrate your leadership skill through the performance of your unit, and the growth of your people.”
While that sounds obvious, it is an often forgotten message.
Set clear expectations for learning and growth. Tell your subordinate leaders that you are mutually responsible for their professional development, and that you will use the performance management program, the organizational leadership model, and many other sources to learn and grow together.
Carve out time for dialogue and reflection. Learn from past activities, and apply the learning to future endeavors. If you fall prey to being too busy for good dialogue, your subordinate leaders will use that as their role model, and learning and growth will fall by the wayside.
Create a learning environment
Peer to peer learning is a low cost method of building community and knowledge. Encouraging communities across departmental lines helps to break down silos and build common purpose.
Project assignments crossing departmental barriers that stretch thinking and skill are great development tools, but only if the participant understands that learning has occurred and how they can use the new knowledge in different situations. It is the leader who keeps the dialogue and learning front and center. And possibly the leader learns too.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot
The beauty of leadership development is that there are so many low cost tools available. A leader only has to champion growth and development, seek out creative ideas, and generate good dialogue and reflection.
Acknowledging this critical leadership role – fostering an environment of learning and development – will pay dividends for the organization, the leaders and the employees they lead.