Transforming Leadership Development: Are We Missing The Main Thing?

May 2, 2023

“The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.” But what’s the main thing for leadership development?

Sounds simple enough, but when it comes to something complex like leadership development, what exactly is the main thing?

Is it excelling at selecting the right people? Is it a well-funded corporate learning center with renowned faculty? Is it using the most powerful learning technologies? Worse yet, what if we’ve been missing the main thing?

Some Things Are Missing in our Current Approach to Developing Leaders

Over the years, there’s been common formula used for developing great leaders. First, organizations provide leaders with accurate assessments of their strengths and weaknesses throughout their careers. Next, leaders are matched up with development assignments and coaching/mentoring support to help them grow.
Results vary from one organization to another. Our data shows overall progress, but not in the magnitude that we all desire.  What can we learn from those organizations that are achieving the greatest success?

Leadership Development Requires Multiple Things to Happen Simultaneously

The main thing that creates success in developing leaders is when the existing leadership team is deeply committed to leadership development and actively involved in the process. For all elements of an effective development process to succeed, the current leadership team must take people development seriously. Their behavior determines whether people constantly learn and grow from their work experience. Their actions control leadership development’s success.

 For example, our firm provides a multi-rater (360-degree feedback) process. This gives leaders an objective and accurate view of their current leadership behavior and how it impacts their colleagues. However, much of its success hinges on the immediate manager’s follow-up. When the direct manager shows interest in the results, schedules periodic follow-ups, and tracks the direct report’s progress, the value of the 360-degree feedback process skyrockets. Often, without that, nothing happens.

Challenging Our Assumptions about “Learning” On-The-Job

The black hole in most organizations’ development of leaders usually begins with a wrong assumption. They believe leaders get better by merely putting in time on the job. Our research shows just the opposite.

The following chart shows data from 360-degree assessments of 65,268 leaders. Each leader was evaluated by, on average, 13 raters (e.g., manager, peers, direct reports, and others). Overall leadership effectiveness is the average of 60 leadership behaviors that differentiate great leaders from poor leaders. Note that rather than an increase in leadership effectiveness as leaders age, the results show a steady decline.

Leadership Development Study- Age groups and leadership effectiveness

This lack of learning and growing has come from equating the process of learning from work experience to floating down a stream on a raft. No special effort is required. It just happens to you. But the data shows that growth doesn’t happen. Chances are you’ve heard the remark, “No, this person hasn’t had ten years of experience as a sales manager—he’s had one year of experience ten times.” Time on the job can be clocked in but learning from that is optional.

Bottom line: there has simply not been a concerted, deliberate effort to ensure people learn from their on-the-job experience. Worse yet, the term learning may have become the ultimate rabbit hole.  Effective leadership is defined by our behavior, not the information residing in our brains.

Here are the remedies for that.

The Organization’s Role in Leadership Development

The bedrock of an organization ensuring that work experience leads to learning is being intentional.

  1. Make “after-action reviews” a way of life. Take time to analyze the original intentions of a project and compare it to what actually happened. Agree on what should be repeated and avoided in the future.
  2. Create a new criterion for making work assignments. The quick and easy route is to identify the people who will get a project done on time and on budget and assign them to it. We’re proposing an additional filter that asks, “Who would benefit from his project?” “Whose career can we accelerate by them having this assignment?” This is another way current leaders keep the development of their successors in mind.
  3. Identify powerful development opportunities. Begin to match those with individuals seen as having “high potential.” Such assignments could be opening a new operation in a foreign country, moving to a different functional area in the firm, or managing the launch of a new product. The keys are broader scope, new skills to learn, and implementation of the strategy.
  4. Create stretch assignments. There is compelling data about the power of stretch assignments. The following chart shows results for 97,654. Each leader was evaluated by their direct reports on their effectiveness at setting stretch goals. The leaders were then divided into quartiles based on their effectiveness ratings. The direct reports were also asked about the extent to which they were willing to give extra effort to accomplish their work. Leaders in the top quartile on setting stretch goals had 56% of their direct reports willing to put in extra effort to accomplish their goal.

Leadership Development Study 2023- Extra Effort

The Manager’s Role in Leadership Development

We know managers are accountable for a group’s performance. Let’s add the responsibility for every direct report’s continual learning from their work experience.

Actions we recommend for every manager:

  1. Discover each direct report’s career aspirations. What do they need or want to learn? What experiences would they benefit from having?
  2. Communicate your desire to have them learn and grow. Encourage them to ask for feedback from you and all other colleagues. Let them know that staffing decisions for future projects will include both performance and development considerations. Are there any activities or responsibilities that they would like to take on?
  3. Participate in “after-action reviews” with employees to ensure that they are learning from their current work.
  4. Ask each direct report to create a personal Development Plan. Identify formal training or educational programs that would further their growth.
  5. Identify developmental experiences that would help each person learn new skills.

The Individual’s Role in Leadership Development

Every individual should understand the following:

  1. The organization’s commitment and desire to have everyone learn and grow.
  2. Mere time on the job does not make people more effective.
  3. Work assignments in the future will be made with both performance and development in mind.
  4. Learning and development must be intentional and done deliberately.
  5. Asking for feedback is key to long-term success. Responding appreciatively and reacting appropriately ensures ongoing feedback.
  6. Self-awareness is vital for long-term success. Everyone can benefit from an external, objective assessment from the people they work with. Participate eagerly in a 360-degree feedback process.

HR’s Role in Leadership Development

  1. Aggregating development needs
  2. Providing appropriate formal development that addresses most common needs.
  3. Identifying, with help of senior leaders, various work assignments that provide useful development.
  4. Monitoring a talent revue process in which developmental work assignments are reviewed for each subordinate leader, along with participation in formal development.

What is the Main Thing for Leadership Development?

More than $60 billion dollars are spent on leadership development initiatives globally. It is the issue most frequently cited as the “keeps me awake at night” topic for senior executives. At the same time, every practitioner of leadership development we know laments not having greater success. Belief is that the missing element has been a culture that takes development seriously, and that is evidenced by deliberate development assignments.

People want to become better leaders. Helping them overcome limitations and build on their strengths is the heart of effective management. They need the organizational support to make it happen.

The most promising path forward is getting the current leadership team to become more focused on everyone learning from their work experience. Implementation is not something HR alone can do.  Only the collective effort of the entire senior leadership team can make that happen. It is the missing piece to the leadership development puzzle. Money can’t buy it. External consultants and suppliers cannot provide it. It is completely in the hands of the current leadership team.

– Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman


Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s data-driven approach to Leadership Development.

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