Monday, June 24, 2013

How to Overcome the 3 Organizational Barriers to Leadership Development

“The truth is that no one factor makes a company admirable; but if you were forced to pick the one that makes the most difference, you’d pick leadership.”
- Fortune’s Thomas Stewart

You would think that given the rock-solid evidence that organizations with great leadership consistently outperform those that don’t that EVERY organization would be heavily invested in the development of its current and future leaders.
However, most are not. And even if they say they are, when you look behind the curtain, it’s mostly lip service.

It’s also hard to keep a competitive advantage a secret these days, so again, it’s astounding to me that so many companies can’t figure out how to develop leaders by stealing the best practices from those that do or stumbling on proven, tried and true, research-backed leadership development models, tools, and practices.
How can this be? In today’s hyper-competitive business climate, why would companies ignore such a no-brainer opportunity to kick the competition’s #%$@?

I think may boil down to three reasons: 
1. They are uninformed or just don’t believe it.

Given that I’ve been doing this for most of my career and have made developing great leaders a personal mission, I have to constantly remind myself that not every CEO or executive spends as much of their time immersed in leadership development as I do. Go figure. They have hundreds of business priorities, and everyone thinks their pet cause is the most important thing they should be focusing on. Also, just because they don’t “get it”, sure as hell doesn’t mean they are idiots. Most of them are a lot smarter than you and I.

The challenge is to get them to understand, believe in it, and own it. When it comes to leadership development, the commitment of the CEO and top dogs is the #1 most important success factor.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just sending a research report to the executive team or presenting the data to them in a 52 page slide deck. Executives are generally skeptical and have big egos, so they need to come to their own conclusions. There also needs to be some immediate or upcoming potential crisis to grab their attention.  Examples of crisis’s could be a lack of candidates to fill current or future critical positions, poor company performance, upcoming retirements, too many external hires that didn’t work out, or dissatisfaction from the Board or auditors.

I wish I had a silver bullet, I really do. I’ve tried everything with different executives I’ve worked for and consulted with, and some success and some frustration. I’ll tell you, cnce a CEO gets it, they are ALL OVER it, and everything else is relatively easy.

2. They don’t know how to do it.
So let’s say you’ve won over a CEO and the executive team. They charge you with coming back to them with the “how”. In other words, you’re tasked with coming up with a way to assess and develop current and future leaders.
For some reason, organizations seem to think they have to start with a clean sheet of paper and create everything from scratch, as is they were the first and only company that had to figure out how to develop their leaders.

When it comes to how to develop leaders, everybody has an opinion. Yes, stakeholder input is good, but do we form committees and ask for everyone's opinions when we design bridges, in order to get "buy-in"? In most cases, no, we turn to civil engineers. Otherwise we end up with a bridge that looks like this:

There is no need to reinvent the wheel, it’s a waste of time and shareholder money! Again, I think it’s the “not invented here” syndrome, as well as executive egos and weak HR leadership that perpetuates this problem.

Do your homework and get some help. Talk to the head of HR or training in companies that do it well, go to a conference, do some web-surfing, work with a trusted consultant, and/or buy a $7.99 book. Pretty soon you’ll start to see common patterns, models, systems, and practices. Then, draw from this body of work to create a plan that makes sense for your organization. The “how” is relatively straightforward – doing it well is the hard part.
Again, executive influence comes into play here. Just because you’ve done your homework and come up with a great proposal, you still have to convince key stakeholders that your plan is solid. Sometimes it helps to start small, try a pilot, and take it one step at a time. Measure your progress and adapt as you go.

Or, sometimes you need to hire a consultant to tell your executives what you've already learned. (-:

3. They just don’t want to.

In any organization, there’s always going to be about 10% early adopters, 80% that will eventually get on board if you can convince them and show them how, and 10% that are just going to dig their heels in and refuse to try anything new or different. For those, a “carrot and stick” approach is needed. Reward the 80% that need a nudge, and punish the 10% that just won’t budge. Of course, if it’s the CEO, then it’s time to move on and either take on a higher priority or update your resume.

I hope this “Why, How and Won’t” framework helps in figuring out how to get your organization started with the development of your leaders. Good luck!


Rod J said...

Dan, I think I'd add one to the list.

The CEO that took a Leadership Development program, but it was underwhelming/it didn't deliver against its brand promise.

There are lots of leadership development programs on the market - lots of variations - lots of inconsistencies. Leaders tend to be quick learners and will not be up for getting burned a 2nd time.

Ned Keitt-Pride said...

This may account for the last 10% but I wonder how much of this also can be attributed to a fear of competition. In no small degree, leadership development requires space to be made for people to lead. This requires those at the top to voluntarily share power, responsibility, and status.

In your experience have you seen a connection between top management that prioritizes growth also prioritizing leadership development? It would seem to me that companies that are staking out new territory would have a greater motivation to develop people to head the new ventures.

Dan McCarthy said...

Rod -
Thanks, good addition! Right, I've run into this, i.e., strong biases based on personal experience, i.e., a bad program, a bad 360 assessment, exec coach, development assignment, etc....

Ned -
Thanks. Good question, and yes, as you might expect, I have. Leadership development is a long term growth strategy, they go hand in hand. Declining companies tend to focus quarter to quarter, and view LD as an expense, not an investment in growth.

Unknown said...

To elaborate on Rod's comment, this sounds like a "leader" who puts the locus of learning not on him or herself, but on their environment.

True leaders learn, and learn constantly, from those around them. Those who are just playing a role expect to be taught. One leadership course a bad experience? Naturally: blame the teacher, not the learner!

Matt said...

Thanks for the post Dan. A reason managers "just don't want to" might be because they can personally benefit from short term reward by, sometimes indirectly, sacrificing the long term development benefits of those they have power over.

Easy examples to think of outside business are sports club managers (concentrating on transfers rather than developing youth), and government policy setters (pushing through short term policies to win votes).

It often seems 'middle management' positions are especially at fault, as their roles may have predesignated expectations and timeframes, especially bonuses linked to objectives. For example somebody may 'head up' a particular project for two years and then be reassigned.

How would you explain the benefits of leadership development to somebody in such a position? Or would effort be best spent addressing the culture of those at the top?


Mary F said...

Great point, Rod. "I didn't get anything out of it, so no one would." It's frustrating.

A challenge I've faced is that they SAY they want to and believe in its importance, yet "business" always trumps when it comes to priority. It's important that we tie development back TO the business, to show how the business will benefit from the effort.

Cher Holton said...

Great article, Dan! One barrier my leadership clients encounter is the obvious but too real to be overlook issue of TIME! Leaders often recognize the need and even have a plan to implement, but then the day-to-day issues get in the way. As we work with leaders, it is important to build in the personal payoff of investing in their own development. Additionally, we need to incorporate appropriate follow up to ensure reinforcement and continuity.

Dan McCarthy said...

Leo -
Thanks for your comment. I once had a training manager tell me she didn't think case studies were an effective method - because she once took a course that used them and she didn't learn anything. I was speechless.

Matt -
Thanks. Sure, individual managers need to buy-in too, just like organizations. The only way managers will buy into a learning goal is if it helps them acheive thier own personal objectives. WIIFM.

Mary - thanks, well said!

Cher -
Thanks, great points!

Horizon Point Consulting, Inc. said...

Dan- Great post for the carnival this month! I like the analogy of the bridge. Everything doesn't always have to be done by committee. Bringing in people who are experts in an area and letting them do what they are best at is critical, whether that be an external consultant or an internal leadership/talent development pro. Of course, like you said, this follows after leadership at the top is on board with the effort.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary (Horizon) -
Thanks for your comment!