The Same Leadership Problems / The Same Solutions Isn’t It Time For Change?
by Thuy Sindell & Milo Sindell
Search “leadership engagement” on Google: 308,000,000 results. Search “leadership development” (94,900,000 results) and “ROI of leadership development” (1,840,000 results). What more can be said about the popularity, seeming importance and value of developing and engaging leaders in your company?
Looking at these numbers, one could conclude that so much has been written, researched and deployed that the conundrum of developing and engaging leaders is old news. Problem solved. Disappointingly, however—and at great cost to companies—the struggle to optimize the engagement and development of leaders continues.
The Problem with Traditional Leadership Programs
Today, leadership development is a $14 billion industry, yet there is a consensus that leadership development programs as a whole are not particularly effective. Furthermore, most programs are not designed to support leaders at different levels, for example new leaders, next-generation leaders and senior leaders. The three major reasons for this, as put forth by McKinsey Quarterly, are lack of context, real-world application and measurable results.
First, most leadership programs apply a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into account context (i.e., the leadership styles and skills suited to the company and its current needs). Second, the majority of development occurs outside of and is not directly relevant to the leader’s real, everyday work. As such, much of the material is not retained nor applied to the job. Third, many programs do not adequately measure results, and without clear signs of success, development initiatives lose momentum and fall to the wayside.
When it comes to supporting leaders at various levels, traditional leadership programs have inferior track records. A 2014 Deloitte University Press survey showed that only 13% of companies rated themselves as “excellent” in developing leaders at all levels, with over half (51%) stating they were not confident in their ability to maintain “clear, consistent succession programs.”
A fourth key complaint is that the critical middle level of leadership is often left out of development initiatives—rather, development dollars and time are focused on senior executives and first-line supervisors or first-time managers. According to Harvard Business Publishing, “This ‘barbell’ approach—heavy on the ends, light in the middle—has exacted a heavy price in terms of underperforming and demoralized middle managers who lack the networking, planning and team-building skills necessary to excel in the flat organizational structures that are so prevalent today.” While development programs for the lower levels of leaders mostly consist of ineffective basic classroom training sessions, higher-level leadership development usually takes the form of executive coaching. Traditional one-on-one executive coaching is effective at increasing the skills and abilities of senior leaders; however, this method is not scalable for leaders at all levels of an organization. Its highly personalized nature makes it an expensive proposition that is difficult to standardize, deploy as a strategic development initiative across an organization and gather data regarding its program efficacy. Given the data and what those of us in the leadership field know, both intuitively and from experience, there is a tremendous gap between the field of leadership development and the solutions that seek to address the needs of companies and their leaders.
Better Results Require Change
The engine of productivity, and the future source of senior leadership, lies within a company’s middle: mid-level leaders, managers, high-potentials and subject-matter experts. Harnessing this potential comes from inverting the “barbell” approach described above and putting a larger focus on the middle. Furthermore, what is required is the shaking up of the stale industry of leadership development with new ideas and new technologies.