What Executives Need to Know About
Developing Their Leaders

by Janet Oliver & Joe DiSabatino

Most organizations invest substantial sums of money on employee training. "Management development" is a key focus of this training, as research studies point to the notion that employees leave their managers, not their jobs when they jump ship. Poor communication style, lack of feedback and coaching ability, unrefined relationship skills, and micro-management tendencies are all cited in departing employee exit interviews as management vices too tough to endure over time. Reports from human resources departments all over the country seem programmed to sing the same tune: develop your leadership and people management skills and business results will improve.

Intuitively, many executives can see the hidden writing on the wall in this barrage of data echoed from employee attitude surveys, exit interviews, and turnover numbers. There must be some correlation between turnover and management skills, even if the correlation seems "fuzzy". Hence, the resulting commitment to training. Let our training departments deliver management training, put all our managers through the classes, and our problems should be solved. It seems like a reasonable plan.

Yet, when results are less than extraordinary, is it because the training wasn't good enough? Perhaps we are interpreting the data incorrectly. If things don't change, there is question about the viability of the solution. But leaders are hesitant to pull the plug on the training completely, since there is an underlying need to prove that, "yes, we are addressing these so-called management issues." So leadership development continues with hope that our managers are being somehow "transformed" along the way. When push comes to shove, what we really care about is simple. Are managers achieving their business results? If they are, it is easier to shrug off the quest to develop a "better" way of operating.

So what's the bottom line here? How do we ensure that our leadership development efforts are targeted, focused, relevant, and directly linked to our business results? Here are six things every executive must look at.

1. Leadership development is not an event that can be checked off a "to-do" list.
Most executives expect to set a goal, execute a series of actions to achieve that goal, and subsequently see a result. Even if the result is not immediate, measurement checkpoints are used to show our progress along the way. The problem with leadership development is that it is an on-going process, not a training event. Training sessions are only part of the picture.

Structured leadership development opportunities should take place over time and be targeted to specific, individual needs. Individual development plans, "stretch" assignments and projects where leaders are exposed to areas different than their usual jobs, and personalized, targeted coaching over time are all integral parts of the development process. Training sessions are only one link in the chain and cannot stand alone as the sole leadership development effort.

2. Your involvement is key to success.
Every successful leadership development initiative we have designed has one common characteristic: intense involvement and clear commitment from the top. Showing up the first day of a leadership training session and spouting off a few "rah-rah" lines just doesn't cut it. The best programs we have seen include executives actually facilitating sessions, running strategic planning and idea sessions, and showing support by going through the process themselves. "Do as I do" is a much more powerful model than "Do as I say, not as I do". Jack Welch of General Electric was legendary for facilitating leadership training and idea sessions, as well as being involved in performance coaching sessions. Certainly he didn't spend so much of his time doing those things merely to be a "nice guy". Jack saw the direct link between his involvement and the bottom line. Not making the time to spend developing the leaders of your company and nurturing business results is a costly oversight.

3. Invest for the long haul.
Often executives say they are committed to leadership development efforts, but are quick to ax them as luxuries when budgets get tight. Is the effective leadership of your company a luxury? This investment strategy requires staying in it for the long haul. Hire quality training and organizational development staff to do what they know best. When you outsource leadership development, make sure you hire consultants who understand business and what you are trying achieve. And don't expect a one or two person HR staff to deliver the process and do the other myriad of things their jobs require. You need a team of people devoted to this effort, just as you would devote a team to finance or marketing.

4. Expect resistance.
If your organization is maximizing efficiency, everyone is busy. Most managers complain they have little time to spend on strategy or on their leadership development. And if they're good at what they do technically, they see little need to develop skills they perceive as working. Often the most efficient managers are the ones who need to develop their leadership skills the most. They are great at task management but could work on the people management side of their roles. Often managers don't see that the two are inseparable; one is not just a "nice to have" when there is extra time. They must be effective at both to ensure sustained business execution results over time.

Your executives may sincerely want to be involved in the leadership development efforts but expect someone else to execute it. "Send them to training" is their common support motto. On the other hand, "We don't need to go through it, we've been leading people for years." "This stuff is basic, we all know it", "It's a waste of time and not relevant to what I do", and "I'd love to be more involved if I had the time" are all common phrases of sabotage.

To help minimize this inevitable resistance, it is important to:

* Clearly state your commitment to on-going leadership development as an integral business strategy directly tied to company results.
* Communicate the desired goal, the process to achieve it and the desired level of involvement expected from each executive and manager.
* Show your continued commitment by facilitating sessions and sharing success stories in company meetings.
* Link development goals to performance appraisals.

5. Remember that all leadership development is not created equal.
Most companies provide some sort of "management training". Yet often the observable results of those sessions are less than impressive. Here are some crucial things to think about when designing a leadership development process:

* Is it on-going or a one-time training event? Leadership development, just like personal development, is a process and cannot be accomplished in one sitting.
* Have you identified what your leaders must know and be able to do in order to be effective? A list of targeted skills and/or abilities (those popular competencies) are crucial before formal leadership development opportunities can be designed.
* Is there a self-awareness component to the process? As trite as it may sound, Socrates' credo "know thyself" is the foundation to any development process. Many assessment tools are available to assist, but remember, the tool is only as good as the knowledge, depth, and ability of the person administering and explaining it. Individuals with limited knowledge unintentionally misuse assessments and their effectiveness is sullied as a result.
* Is there a feedback element built-in? Only through feedback can our blind spots be revealed, and an ideal way to receive it is through a 360-degree feedback instrument. These allow you to rate yourself on certain pre-determined leadership skills, and then have your boss, peers, and direct reports rate you on the same areas. The results are often eye opening and surprising when one sees gaps in his/her own perception as compared to the perception of others. A word of caution again: there are many tools out there and they can cause more harm than good if not used with care and experience. Like anything else, a strength can turn into a weakness if used inappropriately.
* Is there an individualized component to the process? Do managers have an opportunity to select an area for development and design a plan to achieve it? Not everyone needs to work on the same skills. Do you provide individualized coaching and support to help managers achieve these development plan goals?
* Is there a strong business focus to your program? Do you provide opportunities for managers to brainstorm ideas about business strategy and understand the business better? Do you practice scenario planning with the group and think towards the future together? Do you involve them in your operational planning? Do you communicate the business goals clearly and how each area fits into it? Do you involve them in the process?
* Do you give assignments and projects to the managers involved in the program to ensure continued growth, application, and sustained impact? Do you provide the on-going support necessary for success?
* Do you provide formal training opportunities for the skills deemed most critical for organizational success?
* Do you and the rest of the executive team go through the process yourselves?
* Do your executives lead business strategy sessions and share their success stories in structured settings?

6. Consider your culture carefully.
All the best intentions are fruitless if your initiatives are not carefully aligned with your organizational culture. Be sure to ask yourself these questions when designing your development process:

* What is the company culture like? Is it highly hierarchical with tight controls? Is it unstructured and "loose" with "bottom-up" decision-making? What does one need to know to operate effectively in either of the two?
* Are goals, roles, levels of authority, and expectations clearly communicated? Are there unspoken "rules" which, if broken, are career destroying? What are the politics or the established protocols in the company? Are they communicated openly or must one step on a landmine to find them?
* Are there certain new behaviors that will be sabotaged by the culture even after training is conducted? For example, will the hierarchical structure always revert to top-down decision-making even though "participatory" decisions are encouraged? If so, are the boundaries of authority communicated clearly in order to minimize confusion and frustration?

If leadership development is viewed as a viable business strategy essential to achieving on-going results, is invested in, supported, and planned for, the results can be remarkable. Employees participating in such processes have commented on their renewed commitment to their organizations, their desires to continuously grow and learn, and to contribute to on-going bottom-line success. What more can we ask?

About the Authors:
Joe DiSabatino has twenty years international experience as an executive coach, top-level manager, family therapist, and trainer.  He has a Master's degree in Counseling and has published articles in professional journals.  As an expert in the practical application of systems theory, he designs innovative approaches to leadership development.

Janet Oliver has over fifteen years of organizational and human resource development experience in the United States and Europe. She has served as an executive and internal consultant for Fortune 200 companies and consulted with organizations in a wide variety of industries. Janet's proven corporate track record and Master's degree in Business ensure an approach to organizational development that is realistic and practical.

Joe and Janet are currently senior partners of Phoenix Consulting Associates, a leadership development and management coaching business in the Washington, D.C. area. Contact Phoenix Consulting Associates by telephone: (703) 319-1013; or by e-mail: phoenixca@starpower.net and visit www.phoenixleadership.com .

Also by Janet Oliver & Joe DiSabatino - The Myth of the Extinct Hierarchy: Why Leadership Training Fails | More like this in Training & Development and Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


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