Leadership development: what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it
So much leadership development fails at the first hurdle because it focuses on individuals, skills or culture – but not all three at once. For interventions to work, they need to take into account the whole picture.
Leadership training and development tends to fall into three categories. Pause to reflect on the leadership programmes you’ve run in the last few years and you’ll see they are typically focused on one of the following:
- Coaching aimed at the individual.
- Team leadership interventions that focus on the skills leaders need in order to be effective with their direct team.
- Leadership programmes that aim to distil a particular leadership culture across the company.
Unfortunately, that is exactly the problem – leadership development interventions too often focus on just the leadership challenges of the individual, or the leadership style needed by the team, or the leadership culture encouraged by the company. If these three areas aren’t looked at in conjunction, a leader can feel a lot of confusion and conflict over what is expected of them. It can feel a little like being a dog with three masters.
That’s why, the more time I spend in the leadership development space, the more I recognise the power of leadership training which sits in the ‘sweet spot’ – right at the centre of what the individual, their team and their company needs of a leader (see example below). Great leadership interventions acknowledge conflicts and develop solutions that fit individuals, teams, and companies simultaneously.
To give an example, I work with a law firm that has a much stronger people-focused culture than is traditional in the sector. There was, however, a sub-team in which the workload was greater, but the leader himself couldn’t put in as many hours as his team because he was caring for a parent.
Don’t take the easy option and leave leadership training and development as three separate, conflicting threads. Challenge yourself and your training partners to weave them together in a way that works.
If we had just focused on the firm’s culture, or the team’s culture, or his individual needs, we would have missed so much of the picture: the firm wanted a people-focused leader; the work itself required very long hours; and the leader couldn’t lead by example because of his caring role.
By looking at the complex landscape this leader was facing, we could tailor his leadership development to an approach that could deliver on what was needed by the firm, the team and himself. It was, and still is, difficult for him. Being aware of the conflicts, however, means that he has a clearer sense of why things don’t work, and how, and what to do to resolve them.
So, if you are responsible for leadership training, how can you hit the sweet spot between individual, team, and company leadership needs?
1. Analyse the cultural and strategic leadership needs of the company (macroclimate)
Take what you know through previous work that has been done to understand the company culture, structure and strategy, and augment it if you can with more data on what people expect from leaders at a company level.
A great question to ask can be ‘what does a role model leader look like around here?’ The more you can build up a sense of what is needed now, and for the future, the more successfully you can build a leadership programme that works at the organisational level.
2. Get a sense of the culture and expectations (mesoclimate) in each team
Your knowledge may be thinner on this. You can talk to team members, and leaders about what the leadership expectations are. A simple questionnaire can help, asking what people need from their leaders and whether it is being delivered. Whilst survey data like this isn’t completely reliable, the combination of qualitative and quantitative data should present a good initial picture you can build on with further conversations.
3. Consider the needs and wants of individual leaders (microclimate)
Talk to the individual leaders to find out what makes them tick. Don’t assume that you know. Offering them internal or external coaching can really help to unpick what’s going on for them and what needs to factor in any leadership development.
Where do they believe they are strong or weak? What holds them back – both in their professional and home lives? What do they see their future leadership career looking like? Don’t just talk to them once – keep talking to them to see how things are going and so that you can make sure their leadership development remains relevant and tailored to them.
4. Identify conflicts
Once you have your data, find the areas of conflict. For example, does the team want to be told what to do, whereas the company has a more democratic approach to leadership? Or is an individual of the belief that they shouldn’t show any sign of weakness, while their team is clamouring for authenticity? How can you work through these? Are they resolvable? How?
Don’t take the easy option and leave leadership training and development as three separate, conflicting threads. Challenge yourself and your training partners to weave them together in a way that works, adjusting approaches to bring them into line, and having conversations with leaders and teams where more alignment is needed.
5. Balance, balance, balance
It will not be the case that you can achieve alignment and then sit back, gratified at your work. New leaders and new conflicts will come along, and you will need to work on maintaining leadership development that sits at the sweet spot. Is it difficult, and never-ending? Yes. It is in that work, however, in the attention to conflict and balance, that powerful results emerge.
This is where coaches, leaders, and training departments do their best work with leaders, helping them to overcome clashes, working from the perspective of the individual whilst always accounting for those that are being led. It’s where best practice resides. It’s also where you can push your company’s leadership development in new and beneficial directions.
Interested in this topic? Read Training pitfalls: why so much leadership development doesn't work.