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Practical Insights Into Leadership Skills Development

Bob Little 

March 4, 2016

L&D professionals have a key role to play in facilitating the development of leadership skills in their organizations. Change is constantly needed for organizations to remain efficient, effective and competitive in today’s world, and high-quality leadership skills are vital for instituting and successfully implementing this.

Dave Webber, an experienced HR/change leader and former director of business services and HR at the Workers’ Educational Association, says: “The 70:20:10 concept probably applies as aptly to leadership as it does to any other form of learning, with most leadership development taking place through learning on-the-job.

“Naturally, people have different preferred learning styles – within the main categories of activist, pragmatist, theorist, or reflector. And the Kolb Learning Cycle of ‘plan, do, reflect, apply learning’ is useful in planning leadership development interventions, as it is in other L&D areas.

“However, leadership skills also require action/planning and development. So there needs to be a strong emphasis on experiential learning. Many leaders augment this by using coaches or mentors to help them reflect on their experiences and apply these to their business situation or personal style.

“In my experience – particularly in the case of ‘learned’ leadership, as opposed to naturally intuitive leaders – leaders always seek to learn from others. Moreover, they use the results of their learning not just for their own development but for others’ L&D as well.”

Hugo Heij, head of IMLS Coaching & Consulting, and a member of Fluid Business Coaching, stresses that there’s a great difference between theory and practice when it comes to developing leadership qualities in existing or would-be leaders. He says, “Like driving a car, you can learn the theory quite quickly but that doesn’t make you a great driver. Achieving that requires longer-term development, probably involving several carefully selected projects allied to some coaching and mentoring.”

Webber believes that, “Leadership development itself, rather than learning the business and management skills that leaders also need, is often best done through a short, immersive activity. This activity might take a few days, or occupy a regular short slot over time, but it needs to be followed by many opportunities to apply that learning and reflect on it, often supported by a mentor or coach.

“Leadership development often fails where the intervention doesn’t reflect the reality of that person’s current role – or where the intervention creates false expectations for the developing leader.

“I recall an experience I once had of a program designed to help leaders promote creativity and initiative in their people. Unfortunately, the organization’s culture and processes didn’t support creativity and initiative – and the leaders weren’t encouraged to seek to change that.

“There’s also a question of whether you use in-house or external, proprietary programs to develop your organization’s leaders. In-house programs can have the advantage of being rooted in the organization’s reality and its change journey. Some leaders like that and question the relevance of L&D programs designed to take them away from that reality to experience something new.

“Nonetheless, these new experiences and opportunities to learn from people with a wider range of perspectives, via an external program, have the potential benefit of offering a wider range of perspectives from external events, trainers, coaches, and mentors.

“Great leaders can be created by being ‘thrown in at the deep end’ and having a period working in a new organization – or part of that organization – before returning to familiar organizational territory to put their new found experiences and skills into action there.”

Webber also believes that leaders only develop if they want, and are willing, to develop.

“On one occasion, I was part of a team delivering a compulsory leadership program to all the managers in an organization,” he recalls. “It became clear that around half of the participants were only there ‘in body,’ not in mind or spirit – however much I or the other trainers tried to engage them.

“On the other hand, in another part of the same organization, a voluntary leadership program – which saw participants as customers to be marketed to, invited participation from people at all organizational levels, and which used a high-profile external coach who’d worked with Olympic athletes – turned the leadership of the organization round in just two years.

“Another time, the organization I worked for appointed a high-profile executive as a ‘square peg in a round hole’ in the hope that that person would lead others toward a new culture. Unfortunately, that new executive wasn’t fully briefed or supported by the organization – so that person merely sought to ‘fit in’ rather than being an agent for change.

“I’ve also been in an organization where there were several failed leadership development programs, with attempts to get an embedded team of leaders to learn from simulated exercises. The leadership culture and behaviors that the CEO wanted to create in the organization were so far from the reality of people’s understanding and competence that the dialogue the trainers were trying to create became impossible.

“In the end, the CEO realized that, in this instance, the leadership development program was doomed to failure. It was necessary to fire most of the existing team and recruit a new one.”

When it comes to assessing leadership skills, the military have many well-used processes. However, carrying out similar assessments seems less clear cut in the corporate world. Webber says that leadership assessment or development centers use a range of tools, such as psychometrics, business simulations, interviews, peer-to-peer, or 360-degree assessment and historic job performance analysis to assess candidates’ leadership skills and potential.

“These can work well in assessing existing and predicting future performance, especially where they’re not used as a one-off, but as part of an on-going leadership program,” he points out. “They’re usually costly in terms of time and money – and they tend to be restricted to leaders regarded as part of the organization’s high-potential or high-performing talent pool.

“Such initiatives are by no means foolproof. It’s important to constantly and consistently monitor candidates’ on-going performance and their application of the leadership skills they’ve learned.”

Aside from the organizational assessment of leadership skills, the real benefit of undertaking any of these assessment activities for willing, open-minded leaders is that it provides them with their own data.

“While, on the face of it, an individual may have achieved a fantastic result in a simulation, only they know how they felt or what it cost them physically or emotionally – and what that says to them about their ability and willingness to deliver that level of leadership,” says Webber. “Armed with that knowledge, they can plan how to carry their learning forward, with or without their employer’s, coach’s and/or mentor’s support.”

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One comment on “Practical Insights Into Leadership Skills Development”:

  1. Rebel wrote:

    I always wonder if people who are in leadership / management positions who don’t really want to learn more about leadership, such as the one described here, should be in that position? “It became clear that around half of the participants were only there ‘in body,’ not in mind or spirit – however much I or the other trainers tried to engage them.”
    Will they eventually work themselves out? Do organisations drag them along for too long?
    I understand the issue about taking part in a leadership program voluntarily vs compulsory, but people don’t always realise that they need training / development and will therefore not put their hands up for a voluntary program.