Why Leadership Development Fails

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In spite of $365B a year spent globally on leadership training, follow up studies show that it does not have a lasting effect on organizational results. Within one year of completion, surveys indicate that organizational effectiveness, the intended purpose, has not improved or changed in any meaningful way. The reasoning offered is that work design and culture practices tend to prevent and obstruct change, even among great performers.

Work systems design is called for to provide a context for real change and new levels of effectiveness. The problem is that the suggestions are based on an incomplete assessment of the restraints, an old paradigm as the source of ideation and a resulting amelioration that makes it less bad than before, but missing the opportunity that a regenerative rethinking would bring going back to the foundation of how humans and living systems work as the source of work, organization, and business design.

Commentary on “Why Leadership Training Fails — and What to Do About it. by Michael Beer, Manus Finnstrom, and Derek Schrader” in Harvard Business Review, October 2016.

  • Companies, in spite of dumping billions of dollars into training and development, don’t see the investment result in a payoff. The purpose is to improve organizational effectiveness.
  • The reason is that managerial and organizational systems prevent people from applying what they have learned, no matter how smart and motivated they are.
  • To create a favorable context for learning and development, there must first be a shift in organizational design, across the organization from top to bottom and every unit.

Evidence: 75% of those in a survey by authors felt that they, and the organization, had regressed at the one year mark after training, with some exception when senior management was deeply involved and committed.

Reason: Units developing training assume that the organization is an aggregation of individuals and the organization just needs to select for and develop the right set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to improve effectiveness. Human Resources defines the requisite individual competencies needed, designs or selects training on those competencies, sells the program to top management and conducts the training believing the organization change will follow.

Restraint: Much of the shortfall is in the systems in which the employees work in. They are complex and interrelated and missing. The systems must change for people to change.

Second Opinion

More depth and details can be found in my book The Regenerative Business.

As I often find, there is a decent understanding of the problem or issues in the study, book, or article. In, Why Leadership Development Fails, I agree with the proposed premises laid out by the authors but see some missing aspects from which to proceed. Further, the suggestions made for pursuing a better outcome are based on an old and outdated worldview, in some cases the same worldview that created the problem. As a result, the suggestions are all ameliorations of the current problem, designed to make it less bad or somewhat better.

To gain a significant shift in outcomes, they have to shift the way they are viewing work design and development. The difficulty in doing so is that attachment to a “better” idea is the enemy of discovering “the best” idea.

I define “best” as one that works with human nature and human intelligence in a role as part of all living systems. Best can only be discovered by referencing and creating based on the first principles of human and living systems intelligence.

Strangely, perhaps and perhaps not, is that it turns out this is best for business effectiveness as well, which is amazing.

My Opinion

Carol’s Premises:

  • Development (capability building in living systems, thinking, personal and group self-management mastery) created simultaneously with work pursuits and design, not separately. Overcoming the fragmented approach to change is the first change — a change in philosophy of developing people and organizations. Without this, no context shift or training will work. It will produce the same systems and outputs as the old philosophy and approach.
  • Destabilization of current patterns is an immediate and integral to the way of working, starting with a compelling corporate direction that creates a “conscious shock” to the system and calls on everyone to participate fully to make it work.
  • Culture is being created in how development is done, not as a separate activity or lesson. This direction is based on the essence of the business, global imperatives that are affecting it and a unique positioning of the company that makes them non-displaceable.
  • Change theory is based on Harvard’s cross-discipline decade-long study of difficult change.
  • Frequency of engagement is weekly in the new learning and behavior with reflection
  • Intensity is 10% of waking hours are activating new behavior
  • Duration is 3–8 years, depending on the challenge of the new behavior
  • Wholeness of human is engaged — knowledge and skills, being and becoming, and internal motivation
  • You work with a resource who is slightly ahead on the road.

Six Steps Reimagined

  1. Instead of a senior team defining values and inspiring strategic direction, a core team in a leadership role articulates a focus and direction and then structure work so each employee can find their own role. This creates development, learning a new way to think and be, thus destabilizing the traditional way of working
  2. Never do surveys anonymously because this allows people to not work on the consciousness of their effects in a group. The work is done in a collective, with reflections regularly on how they are developing the capacity to work together increasingly more effectively. There is a design of systems where people can redesign their stakeholder contribution and roles in the context of the strategy and new corporate direction. The contribution is beyond their current ableness but is initiated by them from engagement in the field of customers and clients lives. This demands each person to grow, gain support and alignment and evaluate their progress with others course correcting until the promise is achieved in the market.
  3. Avoid coaching and consultation of individuals, but rather engage in an ongoing developmental process with groups working collectively on their new promises. All development is in a fishbowl process where everyone learns while one person or group explores, ideates, and reflects. It is a quantum magnitude more rapid than individual coaching and allows development of people, drawing out understanding by experiential processes, rather than advising them, a deeper and more rapid process.
  4. Secondly, convert existing supervisory roles into that of resources to functional teams and team formed to deliver on a promise. The work is that of a resource, not an overseer or coach. They are working with building capacity to perform by bringing new knowledge and skills, ableness to choose and manage a state of being, ableness to direct ones motivation toward strategic motives of the business and its stakeholders. Development is ongoing and ubiquitous for everyone. There are no longer any assumptions of top talent. Everyone can work with the mind of a CEO offering unique contributions.
  5. Success is measured based on delivery on promises to the market stakeholders from the customer, to co-creators, communities, ecological outcomes, and investors.
  6. Processes, systems, and structures are designed based on human development conditions of internal locus of control, external considering and personal agency being internal managed, externally servicing and tenacious in serving stakeholders to the business and its offerings.
  7. Toxic practices are eliminated which are the primary activity that undermines change. You cannot leave in place the very practices that solidify behavior and perspective. This is the missing piece from the early premises.

Couple development (previously training) with the organization changes you are pursuing, not focusing on individuals, but on systems and processes that foster individual movement in the context of the new organizational design.

This post was originally published as part of my Business Second Opinion Podcast and Blog series. Sign up for the newsletter to catch what’s coming next.

Find all of the Business Second Opinion Podcast on itunes, Sticher, Audio Boom or Google Play.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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