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Leadership development with an organisation development mindset


Roffey Park's Caroline Stearman looks at developing leaders using OD principles.

A few months ago I decided to flex my social networking muscles and joined some professional groups on LinkedIn.

Now, I do appreciate that this is not particularly dramatic a step, however, it held some interesting insights for me. One organisation development (OD) practitioners group has a prominent and dominant conversation thread, new additions to which pop in to my inbox daily. At the heart of this thread of chat is the question of how practitioners define OD in their organisations.

"OD work is grounded in a specific set of values about people and worked out through a specific set of tools and knowledge about individual, group and organisational change."

The question of definition and clarity about what we mean by OD has been around for years, and is not going away. On our OD Practitioners Programme at Roffey Park this is the first question we address, and it is a critical one. Practitioners in the field of OD have been and are criticised for helping create a sense that OD is exclusive with use of jargon and inaccessible language to talk about what it is. It is vital that we are able to explain what we mean by OD and how OD can impact organisational success.

It is also important to have clarity about the connection between OD and HR, and OD and L&D as closely related disciplines. At Roffey Park we work with HR teams to develop their skills and confidence in taking an OD perspective on their work as they are seeking to influence lasting change in their organisations. 

In this article I will take a look at the possibilities OD has to offer L&D, looking specifically at the example of leadership development interventions. I am musing as I write on what is offered by taking a particular perspective, rather than presenting a value statement about this being the right or the best perspective.

My offer in response to the LinkedIn group question is that OD is about supporting and increasing organisational effectiveness in order to underpin the achievement of the mission and strategy of the organisation. OD work is grounded in a specific set of values about people and worked out through a specific set of tools and knowledge about individual, group and organisational change.

The values upon which OD are based are well articulated in Mee Yan Cheung-Judge and Linda Holbeche’s new book Organization Development: a practitioner’s guide to OD and HR.  Published this year, it is an invaluable resource to have on the bookshelf.  Below is a hybrid list of some of the values they highlight, along with some I consider influential.

OD values

  • Humanistic.
  • Grounded in a deep respect for difference and the value of hearing different voices and perspectives.
  • A belief in the possibility of change and development, for individuals, groups and organisations.
  • Commitment to social justice, equality and fairness.
  • Democracy and participation – everyone has something to offer.

This set of values points towards the importance of enabling people’s voices to be heard and valuing the contributions of those across the entirety of the organisation. They speak to principles for engaging with power and politics within organisations.

It is important that OD and L&D practitioners spend time hanging out with their values, as these feed into the design and delivery of interventions whether we are conscious about them or not. The more we are able to surface these for ourselves, the more we create options and choices in how we approach our work with people.

This leads to an important pragmatic question  - what might it look like to adopt a wider OD perspective on an L&D intervention such as a leadership development programme, are these just words and theory, or is there something we can apply?

A core area of work at Roffey Park is developing and delivering tailored leadership development programmes with clients. We do this from an OD perspective, and what we mean when we say this is that we work with the following principles:

1. Have the whole organisation in mind. This means ensuring that we explore the influences upon, and the wider impacts of, the personal development we are trying to support. For example:

  • How this programme links with the overall strategy and mission of the organisation
  • What kind of culture are we seeking to model or impact in how we deliver this
  • How are the organisational processes and procedures aligned or not with the skills and behaviours we are trying to develop
  • What motivates our leaders and their followers in the organisation
  • Does the organisational structure help or hinder the leadership styles we are seeking to develop
  • What are the patterns of behaviour across the different levels in the organisation and how will these impact the skills and behaviour the programme is working on.

2. Create the space for this to be a participative endeavour.

  • Asking what is possible to enable the leaders to shape and create the programme for themselves.

3. Adopt a curious and inquiring mind. This is an orientation towards gathering information and making sense of what is going on, rather than an orientation towards controlling and fixing problems.

  • Considering what happens as valuable data about the organisation, for example if a certain group of leaders are disengaged and not wishing to be part of the programme – what does this reflect about the organisational system and what response may be appropriate.

4. Take account of the power dynamics of the organisation.

  • Who is being heard loud and clear, who is not being heard that may have something significant to offer?
  • Who makes decisions?

5. Consider what your role is.

  • Are you as the internal or external consultant working as an expert, or as a catalyst within the organisation for change?

6. Include understanding the organisation in the design of the programme.

  • Individual leadership is never in isolation from the wider dynamics of the organisation. Leadership development programmes need to encompass personal behaviour and also understanding the nature of organisations and the leadership role within that.

A leadership programme which takes these elements into consideration and is built upon the values of OD has the ingredients required for impacting sustainable change and development at a personal and organisational level. The contribution of OD is one of setting crucial L&D work in a wider organisational context and in this way L&D and OD should be considered inseparable.

Caroline Stearman is a senior consultant at Roffey Park. For more information visit

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