Out with the old, in with the old
By Simon Holland - January 05, 2012
In his first-ever blog to start the new year, Simon Holland, Global Head of Strategic Change and Organizational Transformation, argues that it’s time for a radical review of leadership development programs
Most leadership development programs do little more than maintain the status quo. Long-term organizational change depends on behavioral change—and that depends on in-depth understanding of individuals and what motivates them
Happy 2012. Given up giving up smoking/chocolate/drinking yet? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. According to research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, often quoted at this time of year, more than four-fifths—88 percent to be exact—of all New Year’s resolutions end in failure. At this rate, the only resolution worth making is not to make a resolution.
Why is change so difficult for us? Why can’t we stick at things—even when we know they’re good for us?
I’ve been thinking about these kinds of questions a lot lately as colleagues get to grips with the problem of leadership development—and how it can be solved. Didn’t think leadership development needed fixing? Think again. Research by LEAD—Leadership Excellence at Deloitte—finds that only a puny 4.3 percent of leaders rate their organization’s leadership development as “very effective.” Most corporate efforts to make us better at our jobs fail to make a difference in the long term—much like those resolutions. Back at the office, lessons learned during a development program disappear faster than needles from the Christmas tree.
Some loss of momentum is probably inevitable. Confronted by a backlog of emails, etc, and the resistance of colleagues to new things, enthusiasm wanes. But it’s not just the daily grind and an “inhospitable” culture that are to blame. The plain fact is most leadership development programs are misconceived—and that they’d have patchy results whatever the circumstances.
The LEAD team has highlighted four critical design flaws. Number one is a failure to link programs to the needs of the individual—or to integrate them into CPD (continuous professional development). Too many leadership development initiatives are ad hoc, begun not because an organization is thinking about the future of its executives and managers but simply because it’s planning a new strategy and wants to limit the risks it will misfire. Consequently, participants’ personal motivation to learn—and, crucially, to change ineffective behaviors—is poor. Give the development needs of the individual level pegging with the development needs of the organization and you’ll get a program much more likely to succeed and to meet long-term strategic goals.
Number two is the wrong environment. Facilitators need, says LEAD, to create the conditions for “constructive challenge,” where participants feel able to admit to and face up to personal weaknesses. Leadership development must not be an ordeal, but it shouldn’t be about anodyne messages either—few things get done in the comfort zone.
The third flaw concerns content and structure—and is related to the first. Most programs are too generic. Force-feeding people information from a standardized training script will seldom work. Learning has to be relevant to the specific needs of the individual and to the problems an organization confronts. It has, says, LEAD, to be based on finding solutions to real issues. Common sense tells us that lessons learned in practice—rather than theory—make most impression on people. There’s a big difference between knowing a thing intellectually and knowing it emotionally or through experience.
The final problem is follow-up—or lack of it. Nearly a third of respondents in a survey commissioned by LEAD from independent UK organization IEDP said that coaching was the key factor in their “most powerful learning experience.” The opportunity to reflect on what you’re doing, provided by coaches and mentors, makes learning more secure/embedded. Given the pressures and competing demands on leaders, support needs to be formalized. Time for follow-up needs to be factored into development programs. It’s an investment that will pay off in the long term.
Again this is common sense—not sophisticated psychology—but if you want some kind of scientific proof it works, consider the following story, which featured in a Fast Company magazine article, “Change or die,” by Alan Deutschman in 2005.
The number of heart bypass patients who change their ways—eat healthier foods, take regular exercise, etc—is notoriously low. According to the medical school at the John Hopkins University, 90 percent revert to their old behaviors within two years of surgery.
To try to combat the problem, in 1993, Dr Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, trialed a new post-operative care program. A holistic approach, it included not only dietary advice and fitness regimes but also twice-weekly group support sessions, led by a psychologist. Three years later, 77 percent of participants had stuck to their new, healthier lifestyles. Group support works, coaching works. In fact, as an incentive to change, it seems they beat fear of death.
To summarize, then, if your New Year’s resolution is to be better at leadership development, you need to remember the four Ss:
- Synergy—make sure individual and organizational needs are aligned.
- Stretch—provide constructive challenge.
- Solutions—engage people in problem-solving, the real-life stuff.
- Support—provide time for reflection and coaching.
Follow this four-point plan, and you could avoid being one of the 88 percent.
Simon Holland, Global Head of Strategic Change and Organizational Transformation for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, specializes in people performance and leadership and has guided the design, development, and delivery of many change programs, helping organizations lead people in new ways of thinking and working—for the long-term benefit of shareholders and stakeholders.