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Examining Effective Leadership Development

Bob Little 

November 27, 2015

Apparently, while 90 percent of L&D professionals are looking to improve business impact, get the right people in place, and improve the processes of talent and performance management, only two in 10 are even close to achieving these goals. So says a report – “Excellence in Leadership Development” (available as a free download) – from the benchmarking research company Towards Maturity (TM).

Building on its benchmark research with more than 4,000 organizations since 2003, TM interviewed 125 L&D leaders responsible for delivering leadership development programs, and gained further insights from a sample of more than 2,000 leaders and managers from the TM Benchmark. Its subsequent report aims to identify how learning innovation can improve leadership development programs’ business outcomes.

The report, supported by professional services company KPMG, shows that organizations spend 25 percent of their L&D budgets on leadership development – delivered mainly via the classroom, with only 14 percent being delivered via learning technologies.

The report says leaders tend to be self-directed learners but the L&D programs fail to recognize this. Of the leaders studied,

  • Seventy percent find Google or other web search tools extremely useful.
  • Forty percent belong to networks and communities.
  • Fifty percent learn in the evening and at weekends,
  • Sixty five percent say they lack time for (formal) learning.
  • Forty four percent can’t find what they need.

When it comes to the L&D professionals responsible for developing, delivering and overseeing leadership programs, only:

  • Thirty percent are curating external resources within these programs.
  • Thirty percent have no plans to implement social media in leadership development programs.
  • Twenty six percent use communities of practice.
  • Thirty one percent include users when designing the program.
  • Fifty percent provide managers with resources to support the learners.

However, in terms of the content and subsequent measurement of the learning:

  • Sixty three percent of L&D professionals use online leadership portals.
  • Seventy percent use competency frameworks.
  • Thirty three percent are using immersive learning environments.
  • Forty nine percent offer internal accreditation.
  • Nineteen percent use learning analytics.
  • Forty one percent identify KPIs but only 20 percent measure business KPIs.
  • Thirty one percent track the learners’ application of their learning, although only seven percent seek evidence from the learners’ managers.

TM says the most successful leadership development programs involve the learners in designing the learning activities, use competency frameworks and diagnostic tools, link performance to management objectives, and offer successful candidates leadership accreditation.

The report adds that creating engaging online experiences involves using a wide blend of formal training methods – including games and simulations – along with self-study lessons, and mobile devices to deliver learning. It advocates developing customized mobile apps for learning, as well as curating external resources and providing access to external portals and MOOCs.

It also suggests that, to produce successful leadership development activities, L&D professionals should:

  • Use experiential learning, including implementing learning models such as 70:20:10; using mentoring, work shadowing and job assignments; engaging with key stakeholders; and providing job aids to support the application of learning.
  • Create community by exploiting external social networks in learning design, implementing learning communities, and leveraging in-house social media.
  • Demonstrate value by focusing on business outcomes, identifying business KPIs in partnership with senior managers, and monitoring and reporting on progress against these KPIs.

The report concludes that current L&D thinking and programs aren’t in line with how leaders are actively learning:

  • Forty percent of leaders belong to social networks for learning, yet 30 percent of L&D leaders have no plans to integrate social media into their leader development programs.
  • Ninety two percent of those studied focus on face-to-face classroom training, despite only 60 percent of leaders finding this useful.
  • Thirty nine percent of L&D professionals offer mobile content in leadership programs, despite 70 percent of leaders saying that they learn what they need for their job while travelling.

The report reveals that fewer than half of the L&D teams analyzed are delivering the desired benefits. It identifies the main barrier to change as a lack of knowledge among L&D professionals about technology’s potential applications in leadership development. Indeed, 68 percent of L&D professionals acknowledged this to be the case.

TM’s managing director, Laura Overton, says, “Alignment with business objectives and the needs of our leaders is vital to the success of any program and, ultimately, the value of the L&D function. This report contains solid evidence that, we hope, will shape the future of leadership development programs worldwide.”

Almost in defiance of the report’s findings, L&D teams remain optimistic about what leadership development programs can achieve – despite most of them failing to reap the intended rewards:

  • Ninety eight percent want their leadership programs to deliver improved business performance, yet only 18 percent are achieving that to any significant degree.
  • Ninety five percent want to improve career planning for potential leaders, but only 13 percent are consistently achieving it.
  • Ninety five percent want to improve succession planning, but only 16 percent are seeing this happen.

Neil Wilson, KPMG Learning Academy’s lead, says, “In general terms, spend on leadership development is increasing but companies need to strategically plan wisely how to spend this money. Technology, in itself, isn’t the answer to improving L&D. Rather, it’s the way it’s used that counts.

“Organizations need to address their skills gaps and look at the use of learning technology from a strategic perspective, rather than in isolation for specific learning programs. It’s important to be realistic about what can be achieved and how this will be measured.”

Roger Mayo, director of the HR and learning consultancy MT&D Learning Solutions, comments: “Two ‘fast facts’ from this thought-provoking report strike a chord – the popularity of collaboration in learning and the alleged lack of time for learning.

“I’ve seen pairs of learners, where one is more activist and the other more reflectivist, collaborate successfully across a range of blended learning activities, assigning preferred roles and activities between themselves to bring about the best in each other. Here, one and one make more than two!

“Lacking the time to learn is a common complaint by learners but if you argue this after, say, attending a self-selected time management program, there’s no hope for you! The role of the learner’s manager is vital in pre- and post-event encouragement, getting the learner to change, make things happen, and share intentions/actions with others.”

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