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4 Questions Your Boss Has About Leadership Development Programs

For the past several years, organizations have repeatedly said that leadership is a key priority and one of the most urgent and important challenges they face—and they’re putting a lot of money behind it. Analysts estimate that companies spent upwards of $31 billion on leadership programs last year.

With all that money and attention being funneled towards these pressing leadership development issues, you’d expect that these organizations would be making a pretty big dent in the problem. And you’d be wrong. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report is just one of many recent studies documenting less-than-stellar results, with 40% of respondents saying that they believe their current leadership programs provide only "some" value, and 24% reporting that they yield little to no value at all.

As a result, more and more senior leaders, from L&D, HR and talent management to the C-suite, are scrutinizing the choices they make when it comes to investing in leadership development. It’s not that anyone doubts that a leadership gap is looming. This growing threat is compounded by the fact that today’s and tomorrow’s leaders face a demanding and complex environment that requires a different level of collaboration, thinking agility and adaptability than their predecessors may have needed. But what’s become clear is that, as both organizational and leadership realities change, we need to get smarter about how we approach leadership development.

Changing Your Perspective on Leadership Development

If you’re responsible for creating, recommending, selecting and/or implementing leadership development strategies and programs, then the pressure is on you to deliver not just a learning curriculum or a developmental plan but real ROI. And you might need to change your own mindset around leadership development to be able to do that.

Instead of thinking about what to put in that leadership program slot, start by thinking about the questions your boss really wants answered: 

  1. Does it meet the needs of our business as well as the needs of our current and future leaders? There’s no question that the business world has changed dramatically in the past decade. But many leadership strategies and initiatives haven’t changed along with it. To make sure your approach is relevant and designed to deliver the outcomes the lines of business care about, you have to understand where the organization is today, where it’s headed from a strategic perspective and the leadership competencies that will drive success over the long term. Just as important, you have to understand your emerging leaders and high-potentials, including how they think and process information and how they will need to stretch as they grow in order to support the organizational vision and direction. 
  2. Does it align with our culture? Alignment—between organizational goals, developmental needs and the overall culture—provides the essential context that can make the difference between program success and money down the drain. Cultural alignment, in particular, is something senior leaders look for, because it is so important for ensuring that what you provide not only accurately reflects the face of the organization to external candidates but is truly embedded in the "how we do things here." When it’s grounded in a unified cultural foundation that everyone can get on board with, your initiatives will become part of the organizational and leadership DNA. And that’s what will give your initiatives staying power.
  3. Can it scale? Globalization is creating issues of scale by multiplying and geographically dispersing the numbers at the top, but that’s just the beginning. Flatter organizations, more team-based work, greater complexity and increased diversity are all escalating the need for leadership behaviors and abilities at all levels. This isn’t just about people who have the title; it’s about the growing ranks of people who have the need to influence, inspire, solve problems, make decisions and see the bigger picture, while quickly adapting to changing situations, tasks and stakeholders. Leadership development strategies that not only work at scale but can provide continuous and consistent value as the person progresses through the leadership pipeline are critical in this new world of work.
  4. Why is a training program/learning intervention the answer? You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating: just because you have a hammer, that doesn’t mean everything is a nail. Particularly if your focus is L&D or training, when you hear about a leadership skills gap, you may immediately begin looking for an appropriate training program. But too often, these kinds of programs are recommended or implemented to fill a box—that is, to satisfy a need for training. Senior leaders are looking for business outcomes. Training may very likely be a tactical component in the strategy to achieve those outcomes, but it’s not an end in itself.

To answer (or preempt) your boss’s question, take a wider view. One helpful technique is to apply a Whole Brain® approach to strategic thinking. Create a plan that outlines:  

  • Where we are now—today’s issues and problems (A-quadrant thinking) 
  • Where we want to be—outcomes and vision (D-quadrant thinking) 
  • How we will get there—closing the gap between today and desired outcomes (B-quadrant thinking) 
  • Who needs to be involved—hi-pos, emerging leaders, senior leaders, staff, external partners, etc. (C-quadrant thinking)

Keep in mind, you can’t fully answer these questions from within the bubble of your department, function or professional focus. To make the business impact your boss is expecting, you have to venture out beyond your own current perspective.

It’s a trip worth making. Because when the business press is shouting out all the reasons leadership development programs are a "huge waste," you’d better be able to make a good case for those investments.




The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.



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