Leadership development: it’s time to ditch what you think you know
Right across Europe large companies are tearing up the rulebook when it comes to leadership development.
How can I make such bold and challenging statement? I have just completed a report on innovation in leadership development working with 12 large, successful European companies as partners and co-explorers. The results are fascinating.
The simple problem that all those companies face, regardless of sector, is that much of the current leadership development in place prepares leaders for world that has disappeared.
Meanwhile, there is an urgency to help leaders thrive in this uncertain, volatile, and disruptive environment in which we all operate.
It is not so much about defining a strategy and sticking to it - and telling people what their part in this could be - but more about asking for help, trying to understand what is going on, and making the best decisions in the circumstances that allow organisations to move forward.
A new set of skills
Where, in the current offerings, is the leadership development that focuses on humility, listening well, or asking brilliant and probing questions?
When do we encourage leaders to work together as a leadership cohort in order to solve each others' problems as well as their own?
Who teaches key staff to look outward, drink in the external environment, and not get bogged down in internal issues, processes and ways of thinking?
Finally, where are the leadership programmes that help the participants develop curiosity, or fact check in a world of fake news?
If digital transformation is the driving force in an organisation, then it should define the experience for leaders.
Who helps leaders work out how they can build a personal brand and identity that can sit alongside that of the company?
This is a genuinely new environment in which to work. It is hard to survive, let alone thrive.
If organisations are going to be successful, their leadership has to be comfortable, informed and able to take the best decisions in the circumstances, as well as able to bring their teams through uncertainty.
We need passionate followers, not just order takers.
A shift in focus
The innovation in leadership project is part of EFMD’s (The European Foundation for Managment Development) member services offering.
This organisation, which is renowned for its accreditation services for business schools, takes on a role of gathering together its member companies to work on their issues and challenges, but also share what they have in common, and what they have excelled in.
The aim is to spread the learning from one organisation to everybody in the network, and to the membership as a whole and the wider business community through publications.
The same old, same old is obsolete. We owe it to our leaders to do something that is fundamentally more useful.
Some of the ideas that emerged from the EFMD Special Interest Group will emerge, shortly, in a Global Focus journal edition dedicated to this topic.
The shift that has been tracked is not the whole answer, but it is a move in the right direction.
The trajectory of change in leadership development’s focus can be summed up in this table:
All of these fundamental changes in approach were captured in eight succinct beliefs which all the member companies in the SIG endorsed.
They reflect the large-scale trends in leadership development and scope the shift in focus.
The eight beliefs
- The first belief captures the move away from orthodox courses with defined outcomes and a fixed curriculum to experiential learning, where exploration and openness define what is being practised.
- In that context, there is much greater emphasis on reflection, both individually and in the group to cement understanding.
- Leaders’ time is precious and therefore the outcomes of any development should be ambitious. The aim should be permanent behaviour change and transformation of the organisation.
- If digital transformation is the driving force in an organisation, then it should define the experience for leaders.
- The focus on merely the individual and his or her development has also proved to be inadequate as an outcome. Organisations that have made a shift to group and peer learning have also built resilience – they have attempted to create strong leadership cohort teams able and committed to work on each other’s problems.
- The implication is that leadership development is a continuous process, not an occasional single event. If you can build curious and open-minded leaders with a passion to learn, they will manage largely to develop themselves, and build strong peer groups.
- We are redefining the nature of modern organisations, driven both by technology and the demands of the external environment. As a result they are becoming less hierarchical and more diverse. Leadership has to embody these shifts, and leadership cohorts must reflect those changes.
- Ultimately this is about the resilience of both the organisation and the individual. There has to be a mindset change so that leaders can begin to admit what they don’t know. They must learn from failure and use the intellectual firepower of the whole organisation to deal with challenges, rather than rely on a tiny elite to run the show.
What EFMD reveals is that there is some deep thinking going all right across Europe about the nature of leadership development.
There are now enough pointers to help everyone reading this article think again about the purpose of leadership development and the kinds of support necessary to ensure leaders can flourish.
Great progress is being made to make leadership development more relevant.
The same old, same old is obsolete. We owe it to our leaders to do something that is fundamentally more useful, and our workforce deserves enduring organisations that are successful and that are exciting places to work.
Good leadership has to reflect current needs and solve today’s challenges – as well as being ready for those of the future.
Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: how to develop a growth mindset at work.
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Nigel Paine has been involved in corporate learning for over twenty years. He has produced learning software, CD Roms and multimedia materials, and offered development and support to companies large and small.
Appointed in April 2002 to head up the BBC’s Learning and Development operation, he developed a brand-new on-boarding...