Why do Leadership development programs-fail?

NWORX
4 mins
June 8, 2020

Fixing an under-performing yet critical business process – Wicked problem of Leadership Development

For a leader, corporate leadership development often feels like being dropped into a vast ocean; you do not know where to start, which direction to go in and it seems like you will never reach any conclusion.

However, to scale their business and creatively execute their strategies, CXOs do not have a choice but to continue to invest significantly in developing leaders. The driver for investing in leadership development for most organizations usually comes from the struggle to achieve results i.e. there is a recognition that the organization is unable to get the results (usually revenue and profit growth) they want.

Content & Coaching do not deliver adequate improvement in leadership performance for most organizations

The current approach to leadership development broadly follows 2 popular paths (or systems) and several other less accepted ones.

The first path is to tie up with a premier university because the content and delivery of that content is usually very good, and the participants feel that they are getting something credible given the brand name of the university. The challenge is while participants do get some value from the content, they struggle to figure out how to apply what they learn consistently in their flow of work, which results in less engagement with the content.

The second path is to engage a few coaches and/or get some senior folks in the company to go through a coaching internship/certification program and have them coach leaders on their development.  The challenge here is while participants find the coaching sessions useful, this model is often expensive and not very scalable for the organization because good coaches are always in short supply.

These paths are popular because they have been successful in a small number of “best-in-class” organizations that get much better results from their leadership development investments. What is often not understood is that these best-in-class organizations are successful not just because of the paths but because they also have accounted for the other elements (clarity of results, system and motivation) which the best-in-class organizations largely derive from their values & culture. In other words, the best-in-class organizations have already established the fundamentals of leadership in their culture:

(i.e. two things 1. Engaging people and bringing out the best in them, 2. Engaging people in real issues facing the business and moving them forward).

The paths in these best-in-class organizations are designed to fine-tune how they lead, whereas for most of the organizations it’s not about fine tuning how they lead but to establish the fundamentals of what it means to lead in the first place. So, mimicking the paths from these best-in-class organizations rarely works.‍

Getting Results from Leadership development programs is a function of 4 key elements.

First is getting clear and specific about the results that we want i.e. what results do we want that we are not getting right now? What does a successful result look/feel like? If we do not have clarity and specificity of results its hard to get a reality check and fine tune our judgement about the path, we are taking to get to the results. We must enable each leader in a program to specify results in languages native to the human being, to the business system and to the human system of enterprise.  

Second is the design of behavioral change solution in the form of methods deployed such as performance coaching, skill practice, mental model acquisition etc. The science backed methods must be selected to suit the context and the type of specific results targeted.

Third, we need a System. A system is a process, procedure, path to get to the results. This path incorporates the methods of behavioral and performance change. If we do not have a path that is simple to understand and easy to follow, we will do things inconsistently leading to inconsistent results. More importantly, a systemic approach leads to sustainable forms of solution.

Fourth is Motivation, which is the drive that people already possess or should be engineered for. System connects this to the results that business wants. If system is not able to make this connection, then it will end up with compliance i.e. people will just go through the motions leading to very sub-optimal results. One of the ways to engineer motivation is through Accountability i.e. system holds people accountable. Without accountability people tend to forget what they are responsible for i.e. what they committed to doing in the first place. This leads to declining responsibility which results and leadership behaviors & results that are not sustainable.

Most leadership development programs do not produce the intended results for their organizations because they are missing one or more of these elements or they need to improve one or more of these elements significantly. By looking at the current results you can diagnose what elements are missing and/or need improvement.