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Leadership Training & Development – Fit for Purpose?


Leadership Training & Development – Fit for Purpose?
by Dave Milner

...and when Daedalus had finished making the wings, he gave instructions to his son, saying: "Icarus, I advise you to take a middle course. If you fly too low, the sea will soak the wings; if you fly too high, the sun's heat will burn them. Fly between sea and sun! Take the course along which I shall lead you."

Even in ancient Greek mythology the desire for learning by individuals, and the need for leadership, guidance and direction to others, was apparent. Today it is the "War for Talent", "Leadership in the Digital Age", "Emotional Intelligence", it doesn’t matter what you call it or indeed how you define it, but the ongoing challenge of leadership capability remains the "Holy Grail". Everybody will do whatever it takes to attract, develop and retain those people who have it and yet there is the inherent concern that an organisation is never quite sure that it has got the right people, or indeed the ability to get them or grow their own!

So against that scenario where does training and development fit in? Lets look at the business environment. It has changed significantly over the past decade and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing pace as the implications of e-business start to emerge. Business leadership today is about "doing the right things right." When leaders succeed in doing the right things the measures of business success inevitably follow, and talented human capital is a prime ingredient of this success; in fact the survival of organisations is likely to depend on it.

Gone are the days of standard processes and systems, where change initiatives occurred every so often to shake things up and where an organisation placed customers at the forefront of everything they did. What we have now is a technology-driven environment where products and services become out of date within months not years and where competition is increasingly fierce. There is an obsession with being first to market with new products, marketing initiatives, brands and delivery channels. The leadership role now embraces both internal and external customers and has to work across different disparate functions to "make things happen", all at breakneck speed and efficiency!

Whatever you may think change is now a constant, it is a way of life. Responsiveness, focus and quality are the watchwords of high performance organisations and the leaders within them. Change is demanding on leadership, therefore applying pressure to the management of people, processes and systems. Just to add to that, as your leader attains greater levels of responsibility and span of control, increased levels of complexity need to be managed in terms of wider collaborative activity (not just managing people in your team, who may themselves not be based in the traditional office surroundings but also suppliers, consultants and partnership arrangements). The emphasis will be on underpinning everything for the leader, to ensure that both people and resources "add value" as the stakes become higher.

So, given that the leadership role is now more results orientated, more demanding and more complex than ever before, then surely training and development can respond to meet these needs? Leadership ranks second behind quality as the most popular training area and if the significant investment spent on leadership training programmes is any guide, then the answer to the question is "yes." There is a buoyant marketplace with a vast array of suppliers offering specific skills training that include service management, interviewing, coaching, the managing of performance issues and continuous improvement.

Professional suppliers will ensure that the training methods used are practical, relevant and easy to use in the real world, but there are key questions to ask:

· how does the training help its leaders, for today and tomorrow, to deal with the increasing ambiguity and complexity in their leadership role? How trainable is this area after all? Is it better developed through role experience and focused support and mentoring?

· how does the training help its leaders make the link between what results they need to deliver and how they are going to deliver them?

Successful leaders, in simple terms, are those that understand both what they need to do to be successful (the results) and how they need to behave to achieve this (the application of their core competencies, knowledge and personal characteristics). Having an enjoyable training experience is important, but the bottom line must revolve around how their learning experiences are going to impact on their organisations results. Training must be results orientated and include a focused follow-up activity and evaluation procedures. The leadership dilemma it is too complex an area for there to be a one-off solution.

So how about development? From experience and analysing previous research on the subject, two clear themes emerge:

· effective leadership development tends to revolve around non-trained activities and, as a result, takes time

· experience in different roles is critical to effective development as it provides different contexts and situations within which to apply new learning’s and training techniques

The most effective forms of development revolve around the following activities and their related features (indicated in some order of effectiveness) and show that the key to effectiveness is ensuring that leadership development activity is results orientated:

Focused Role Change: Providing a leadership opportunity with a specific development plan and business rationale behind any move (e.g. gain exposure to cross functional team working, to influence senior partners/stakeholders etc.)

Redesign of Role: Reshaping a leadership role with a specific agenda and business rationale, around what aspects of the role will help to develop the specific individual or group of individuals

Special Project: Providing a results orientated project or assignment that relies on existing capabilities and provides specific individual learning and development opportunities

Action Learning: Team based opportunities where a group of individuals apply specific ideas and tools to real business problems and issues

Feedback – Assessment Processes (360 Degree, Assessment/Development Centre, Psychometrics): Provision of business orientated feedback relating to competencies/behaviours or work styles/preferences with a clear and sustainable programme of support to ensure that learning’s are translated into action

Coaching and Mentoring: Provision of insight, guidance and support that enables learning’s to be translated into business related activity

Self Development: Individually driven "ad hoc" development activity (sometimes appraisal driven) revolving around activity that ranges from competency/behaviour change through to professional business courses

It is important to have a performance orientated framework against which to improve; this could take many formats and does not want to promote that the frameworks that have been developed over the past 10 years or so are better than others. Suffice to say that the clusters of behaviour/competency and personal characteristics (via psychometrics) have been subject to significant performance rigour. The key again is to ensure that these matrices relate to business performance and that they become the assessment.

...Daedalus led the way in flight and was anxious for his companion, like a bird that leads its young from the nest into the air. He encouraged Icarus to follow him and showed him the skills that were to destroy him; drawing on his years of experience he moved his wings and looked back at those of his son.

Drawing on the past again, it is fine for a leader to create the climate for learning and development and to be able to show others what to do and how to get there, providing that they learn from the experience so that they may be able to apply the same skills in other, more complex scenarios, because every environment is different.

You may have an individual team manager who effectively manages a team of people, who have a diverse range of processes and associated outputs to deliver to customers, but then to assume that those same capabilities can be switched to a Unit Manager role where the focus is different is a significant risk. This risk is commonly taken by organisations on the basis that past performance predicts future performance. This is still a sound basis to work from but when reviewing the Leadership Experience and Performance Focus it is not as simple as that.

The wider the jump in leadership experience:

· the more certain you need to be that the individual has undertaken a rigorous development programme to compensate for an apparent lack of experience

· the more focused your development process. Post selection has to support the individual in the new leadership role

· the greater the risk in moving that individual to that level of role

This is not to say that these risks shouldn’t be taken; because in the real world theory and pragmatism need to be balanced, but the success or failure of leaders may be influenced by this type of issue, and to "write off" an individual because they didn’t meet expectations is not always the individual’s fault. Training and development can help to generate the right sort of behaviour but the focus needs to be on reinforcing what you want people to do, and ensuring that you have the organisational systems in place to sustain it.

The challenges for attracting, developing and retaining leaders of tomorrow have not changed. It is simply that everything is moving faster than ever before and any gaps in capability become more evident more quickly. It is not just about learning knowledge and skills, it is a far more multi-faceted approach that is required now to help deal with the demands that are made on the leaders of tomorrow.

It is about enabling leaders to be able to deal with the complexity of leadership roles that have now emerged, and those unforeseen challenges that impact across different parts of an organisation. Leaders need to inspire others to achieve and to grow as quickly as their environments and responsibilities demand. But it is essential to remember that being in a leadership role can be lonely and frustrating and you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. No amount of training or development can prepare you for every eventuality.

...Icarus left his guide and, drawn by a desire to reach the heavens, took his course too high. The burning heat of the nearby sun softened the scented wax that fastened the wings and the wax melted. Icarus moved his arms, now uncovered, and without the wings to drive him on, vainly beat the air. Even as he called upon his father, Icarus fell into the sea and died; he had not listened to his leader and had thought that he was more able than he actually was. Daedalus was distraught as he believed that he had lead Icarus to his death.

PowerPoint viewfoils to illustrate this article are available as e-mail attachments from Dave Milner, Director of Consultancy with PSL.

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