John Adair: Why does leadership training fail?

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It’s not enough to just send people on leadership courses; you need to think about why they are needed in the first place. It sounds simple enough, so why does training so often fail? Leadership guru John Adair shares his thoughts with Louise Druce.

Good leadership is fundamental to good business so it makes sense to equip people with the right skills for the role. Yet, despite being one of the most important aspects to get right, it’s rare to find an organisation willing to spend more than 24 hours thinking about leadership training before spending out on a course, says leadership development guru John Adair.

"All organisations are under time pressures but there is also an assumption that you don’t really have to think that much about leadership training – you just reach out for the latest theory, slap it into a programme and outsource it."

When I spoke to Adair, he was fresh from a three-day meeting with staff from the United Nations, hammering out the content, aims, objectives and participants for a five-day senior leadership programme. You might expect that an organisation as large and prestigious as the UN would want to spend a significant chunk of time getting it right but Adair argues that there are lessons to be learned for companies of all sizes.

“All organisations are under time pressures but there is also an assumption that you don’t really have to think that much about leadership training – you just reach out for the latest theory, slap it into a programme and outsource it. Problem solved,” he explains. “The problem is not solved. That is why so many leadership programmes are failing.”

Adair believes there should be a thorough organisational training needs analysis that takes into account the objectives for the firm and the individual. This boils down to macro and micro issues. The macro issues deal with the whole organisation’s strategy, approach, attitude and culture, while the micro issues drill down to the actual content and nature of the leadership programme. “If you only address the micro issues, you’re simply going to create frustration because people will just see the course as a diversion from the main activities,” says Adair. “That’s hopeless.”

Steering in the right direction

The problem is, he adds, that too many people are looking for a quick fix. Adair says you need at least a five year horizon to grow and develop leaders. In pioneering organisations, the strategy is overseen by a leadership board or steering group that works directly under the chief executive to address all levels of leadership: strategic, operational and team.

"You should always keep control of your leadership development programme. You may get help and advice on it but never hand it over."

The golden rule is ownership. “Euripides said: ‘Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.' Leadership development is core to the business and that is where large organisations that simply farm out or outsource their leadership are making a grave mistake,” he adds. “You should always keep control of your leadership development programme. You may get help and advice on it but never hand it over.”

And there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all training – although you don’t need to teach people a hundred different leadership competencies either,” says Adair. “You can’t teach leadership, you learn it,” he adds. “Trainers are not the most influential people on leadership in an organisation; it’s always the leaders within the organisation. All we can do is help the learning process.

However, he also concedes SMEs are unlikely to be able to afford the luxury of a steering group or a dedicated leadership specialist. In most cases, HR will be driving leadership strategies, which throws up a whole new set of problems. “Transforming managers into effective leaders should be among HR’s key priorities but we are failing badly in terms of equipping HR to do that role,” says Adair.

He is self-deprecating when it comes to blame. “I would start with myself,” he says. “I am the world’s first professor of leadership studies. Why is it that I have failed to get across the core body of knowledge of what we know about leadership and the principles of leadership development? There has been a failure on my part and on the part of people like me who claim to be leadership specialists.”

“Good leadership development is a bit like robbing a bank: if you want to do it successfully, you need an inside person.”

He also believes the problem has been exacerbated by a “massive failure” by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to provide effective programmes and courses for briefing HR on how to handle the revolution of management and business leadership. But another challenge to be overcome is the generalist nature of HR, which now has to deal with everything from employment law to reward and recognition.

“HR hasn’t got the necessary knowledge of leadership development so tends to follow the latest fads and that’s causing confusion,” says Adair. “If they give poor advice because of ignorance then you run into trouble.

“Good leadership development is a bit like robbing a bank: if you want to do it successfully, you need an inside person.”

Is it really working?

For him, the winning combination for developing any leadership strategy is the trinity of the chief executive, HR and a leadership specialist or trainer. “If you get those three working together, magic can happen,” says Adair. But at the very least, whoever is playing the role of programme architect or facilitator must have CEO buy-in as well.

Organisations also need to make sure the programmes are working. “A lot of organisations only do reaction evaluations - did you like the course or not? They don’t do impact evaluation,” he says. “It’s half the story. If I was a chief executive, I would need to have some clear indications that the leadership programmes were producing better leaders – has anything changed in the organisation? And I would need some criteria for that.

“Part of the unprofessionalism of training in the leadership area is that we don’t cost it – we don’t know what our unit costs are, we run programmes prodigally, we waste resources. It’s only when you know your costs you can assess the cost benefit. There is also a set of intangible criteria to do with morale, the level of team work you are developing and so on, which are all exceptionally valuable.”

Adair believes the three key questions any trainer should build into their evaluation sheet at the end of a programme are: what have I learnt, what more do I still need to know and how can I apply what I have learnt to my role?

"Trainers are not the most influential people on leadership in an organisation; it’s always the leaders within the organisation. All we can do is help the learning process."

Trainers should also practice what they preach and undergo training themselves to ensure they are at the top of their game, even if their courses are still well-received. “Success is the enemy of excellence,” he says. “You can always be better and the trainer has to model the kind of leadership behaviour they are seeking to impart.

“The best trainers are the ones that not only instruct and help people build into their own repertoire the body of knowledge about leadership, but also inspire and make people want to fall in love with leadership. Once you get into that kind of spirit, things start to change.”

The paradox

Change is a key theme for Adair. He points out that despite the fact that so many leadership programmes are disappointing, it has not diminished the enthusiasm to put leadership high on the agenda or, paradoxically, dampen the impetus of the “worldwide revolution for management and leadership”.

But it unfortunately also highlights what he sees as British reticence, namely that Brits are pragmatic, short-term and not great at strategic thinking. “If you do absolutely nothing about leadership in an organisation, you will eventually get better leaders by osmosis, but it will take up to 20 years and then you’ll be the beneficiary of the general transformation of managers into leaders,” says Adair. “Can you afford to get by without effective leaders for 20 years?

“Change throws up leaders and leaders bring about change. If your organisation exists in a sort of isolation ward without any form of change troubling you then don’t bother with leadership, just carry on the way you are. However, that is not a luxury that most organisations can afford.”

You can read our previous interview with John Adair here:
John Adair: The rise of the new leader

Over a million managers worldwide have taken part in John Adair's Action-Centred Leadership programmes www.johnadair.co.uk, ideal for companies looking to introduce consistent leadership training, promote a culture of growing future leaders and re-energise their approach to leadership. The one-day course is available between 27 January and 23 June 2009 for £789 + VAT. In addition, trainers can participate in a two-day, intensive accreditation programme to gain the practical tools and techniques used to deliver effective Action Centred Leadership training www.johnadair.co.uk/trainersmanual. The course costs £1,650 + VAT and in the first half of 2009 will take place in February and April. Spaces are limited. For further information, please contact John Adair by email or visit www.johnadair.co.uk or www.adairleadershipdevelopment.com

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