When Leadership Fails – and Why!

When Leadership Fails – and Why!

Leaders and potential leaders are often set-up to fail by their own companies.  Where are companies going wrong, and what can we do about it?

by Andrew Cooke, Growth & Profit Solutions

Let me paint you a picture.

Your business has a new global initiative to identify and develop leaders to meet both the current and the future needs of the business.  Your business is looking to expand globally, and with the slow-down in the developed world you are looking to improve your efficiencies where you are established, expand your existing products and services to new markets, and to develop a culture of innovation to help support and spur on the planned growth over the next 5 years.

Failing Leadership

You have spent considerable time and expense in establishing what your current talent pool looks like, and you have developed a framework of the key skills and capabilities that you need now and in the future as your existing business expands.  Against this you have tested and measured all those who are above a certain level to ascertain their potential, to identify how their skills and capabilities rate against the levels that you have identified as necessary.  From this you have developed the training needed to develop them.

This is a very broadstroke approach, but one that is familiar to those involved in developing, acquiring and retaining talent, and in organisational development.  It is time-consuming, expensive and requires considerable time, resources and top management time and active sponsorship.  And let’s assume you have all of this.

Now let me ask you – how successful have you been in doing this?  Yes, I know you can point to significant successes that have been realised.  But take a deep, deep look at what has been achieved and compare it to what was planned.  Compare this to what is actually needed.  You will find gaps and, dare I suggest it, gaps there are larger than you would like.  Or maybe you have some anecdotal evidence of some success, but you do not have clear measures in place or those that are in place are not meaningful.

So you want to have better leaders, for both now and in the future.  You want the right people in the right place who have the skills and capabilities to take the business forward, both now and in the future.  Yet despite investing millions of dollars, thousands and thousands of man-hours, and dedicating the necessary resources, time and senior management support your efforts fail or, at best, are only partially successful.  I know this is not true for you (?), but take a deep and long look at your efforts and see what has really been achieved.  I suggest you may be taking an over-optimistic view.  I am not disparaging the effort that has been put in, or people’s intent – that is in place.  However, the efforts have been made either in conflicting directions, reducing their effaciousness, or even in the wrong direction.

In the USA, according to the American Society of Training and Development, U.S. businesses spend more than $170 billion dollars on leadership-based curriculum.  Yet despite this massive annual investment what is the return that is achieved?  Few companies measure this in a meaningful way, and of those that do few achieve a significant return

So why is this happening?

Why Leadership Training is Failing Leaders

There are five main reasons:

1. Leadership is a Choice, Not a Position

Companies spend considerable time and effort in testing and assessing people to identify the potential leaders.  Here is my first gripe.  How can you test for leadership?  You can’t.  Leadership is only apparent when people stand up and lead.  It is a choice.  I might have perfect pitch, an ability to follow music by ear, and a great pair of lungs but if I am not interested in playing the trumpet it does not mean I will be a great trumpet player.

I suspect many companies “test and assess” people for leadership because this is what they do for technical roles.  The thinking is that it has worked well for them there, so by extension it should work for leadership roles.  As a result of this companies spend significant money and time in trying to skill up those who have leadership “aptitude” (as tested for) but no “attitude” (no desire).  This has a double-impact with:

  • Many of those being developed lack the passion required to be a leader.  Investing   time, resources and money into such candidates is ineffective; it also means that the level and quality of leadership being developed is sub-par (as well as all the implications and costs of having poor leaders in place who are not able to lead effectively).
  • There being a significant opportunity-cost in that those who do have the passion, hunger and desire to be great leaders lack the opportunity to be fully developed.  Frustrated they will leave to work for other companies, including competitors, where they can grow.

2.  Leaders are Developed not Trained

Companies confuse training and development, using the terms interchangeably when they are not synonymous.  Here is why.

Training focuses on teaching people about the necessary systems, processes and techniques and, in doing so, assumes that these are correct.  It looks to standardise, and to acquiesce to “best practices” which are in themselves static as they represent a fixed goal. Training assumes a status quo and is not suitable for equipping people to deal with dynamic or volatile environments.  Leaders will try to avoid training because, quite rightly, they do not see it as supportive or developmental.

Herein lies the crux.

Leaders need to be developed. Leaders have to adjust to the new business reality, where they need to lead the business in a volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex world – and one which is becoming increasingly so.  To develop our leaders we need to help equip them to develop and grow themselves, and in turn to grow their teams and reports, to provide the agility, flexibility and speed to adapt and grow.  Training, to be frank, does not cut the mustard – it is one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all and static – it looks back, not ahead.

Developing leaders is challenging – because they want to be and need to be challenged.  In this dynamic environment the adage of “what got you here, won’t get you there” is increasingly true.  Leaders need to be proactive, not reactive.  They need learn experientially, expand their social and business networks to gain alternative perspectives, and they need on-going support in doing so.  Too often leaders are “trained and left”.  The erroneous belief being that now you have ticked the box and attended the course you can do it all, when it is apparent this is not the case.  This is especially true as leaders, at all levels of the business, have no prior experience on which to draw in working in this new business reality in which we exist.

As such, leaders have to be trailblazers to lead the business and its people into new territory – and to do this they need to be fully supported and provisioned, whilst being supported in learning how to live off the land as they progress.  You need to develop them and support them on a continuous basis.

3. Leaders are Unique – Not Standard

When developing leaders too many companies adopt a “cookie-cutter” approach, believing that a standardised process will produce a standard human output.  Yet every leader, or high potential, has reached their current position through a unique blend of education, experience and skills; and each has their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  This means that they need an individualised approach to their development to not only build on this, but also to recognise that what got them to their current position will rarely be sufficient or appropriate to taking them further.

In doing this you need to identify what are the business outcomes you are looking for, the metrics and the expected benefits and value you will realise from achieving the outcome.  There will be areas of development that are core to all leaders and high-potentials, but there is a sizeable portion which needs to be customised.  Broadly speaking this is a 80-20 split between common areas and personalised approaches, however the benefits are often more split 20-80 as dealing with the individual’s requirements has greater relevance, immediacy and effect in helping them achieve results.

4. Leaders Never Stop Learning, the “Level” of Leadership is Fluid

The idea that you can complete a course, or a fixed program, and “become a leader” is a misnomer.  Leaders, instinctively, are great self-learners looking to challenge themselves and others, and have the humility to know they never have all the answers.

Leaders progress not only in their position in the hierarchy, but in how they lead or their “level” of leadership – and as they stay and/or move with their position in the hierarchy so they can go up and down in their “level” of leadership  The idea of the Five Levels of Leadership (from  John Maxwell) is shown below:

5 Levels of Leadership

5 Levels of Leadership

1. Positionrights granted by the position and title.

2. Permission – People follow because they want to. Level 2 leadership is based entirely on relationships. You can like people without leading them, but you cannot lead people well without liking them.

3. Production – People follow because of what you have done for the organization. Level 3 leadership is based on results. This is the easiest place to plateau.

4. People Development – People follow because of what you have done for them personally. Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others. Level 4 is based on reproduction.

5. Pinnacle – People follow because of who you are and what you represent. Here leadership is based on reputation.

As such, as leaders oscillate between these different levels they will need to not only learn more, but also how to apply it.  This leads me to my last point.

5.  Leadership is a Verb & Active, Not a Noun & Passive

Leaders lead, they make decisions and they take action.  They are proactive and not reactive.  They produce a centrifugal force that draws people to them, and which often places them at the nexus of event.  Leaders not only learn from their experiences, but they apply what they learn.

Research varies in how effectively what is taught in leadership courses actually transfers to leadership practice. Some have suggested that knowledge transfer is as low as 10%. Other studies show the number closer to 60%. Others estimate that 20% to 30% of ideas learned in leadership training turn into practice. Whichever of these statistics you believe, it is clear that the investment in leadership training is not having the impact it could, or should.

Why is this?  My belief is that they many of the methods use are essentially passive, and are not practically applied or built into helping leaders improve how they work.  It is assumed that a process of osmosis will move theory to application, rather than building it into experiential learning and supporting its on-going application and use.

How Can We Stop Our Leaders from Failing

To develop a leader you need to understand three key things when learning:

  • Reason – what is it that they are learning? What is the underlying purpose?
  • Relevance – why is it important, and what is the relevance of it? They are especially time-poor, so they invest their time carefully.
  • Results – how can they use and apply what they have learnt to good effect?

As such they need to learn experientially – it allows them to apply what has been learnt, to fully comprehend it, and to build it into how they do work and, in doing so, to drive performance and results.  You need to develop your leaders, not train them.  You can train a sheep-dog, but training a leader is like trying to teach a sheep how to herd a flock – it will only end up following the herd rather than leading it.

So how will you identify, engage and develop your leaders?

Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

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