Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail

In an insightful and practical paper, McKinsey addresses four reasons why leadership programs fail. Three were standard fare, but with a thorough-explanation, rationale and suggested resolution of the problem. The fourth issue was especially insightful. It’s one that’s very difficult to deal with in group sessions, but very significant. I’ve dealt successfully with it in one-on-ones, but it’s a different animal, especially tough in group sessions. I’ll explain the why and how further on, moving beyond what the McKinsey report has to say.Since there’s fairly widespread knowledge about three of the insights, I’ll summarize them briefly. McKinsey emphasizes that failure comes from overlooking context, decoupling reflection from real work and failing to measure results.–Overlooking context. Expertise in one situation does not guarantee expertise in another. So successful training will focus upon the specific organizational and/or group context. Limit the development to two or three issues for effective learning. My program typically works with an executive in face-face situations for a year, inside the organizational premises. That includes about 15 sessions, exceptionally …
focused and customized. The issues might include such competencies as collaboration, interdisciplinary networking, team facilitation, high-quality decision-making or enhanced coaching skills. My experience throughout the US and Latin America reveals that issues involving relationships—both employee and customer–tend to be the most needed areas of expertise.
–Decoupling reflection from real work. The rewards of off-site training are limited. In fact, the research finds that adults walk away from that training with just 10% of what they hear in the classroom. But pushing employees to reflect while providing actual work experiences can be especially difficult for most companies. It’s not easy, as McKinsey says, to create opportunities that simultaneously address high-priority needs—say, accelerating a new-product launch, turning around a sales region, negotiating an external partnership, or developing a new digital-marketing strategy—and provide personal-development opportunities for the participants.Some companies provide a consultancy to support and push the leader to reflect while working on a relevant project. When the company is able to do this, it can result in significant leadership improvement.–Measuring results. Evaluation of results is often a set-up for gaming the system. In these settings, the leader pays lip service to the importance of the training, but has no real evidence to quantify the value of the development. McKinsey suggests three strategies. Monitor the participants development after the training, observing promotions and retention issues. Try to monitor the business impact. Finally, begin the development process with a 360 feedback program, either with survey material or interviewing. Then six to twelve months after the program, assess again with a 360 feedback program involving the same original participants.Measuring is an absolutely necessity for a number of reasons. Organizations won’t and shouldn’t invest in training that doesn’t improve the leader, the culture and, directly or indirectly, the bottom line Underestimating mindsetsMindsets or mental models are the high leverage place for focusing developmental intervention. Management and relational systems are always built upon some implicit or explicit models of human behavior. And most of them have had a lot of reinforcement until they are largely out of our awareness. But they are often the culprit in our failures to develop and achieve.Diagnosing, assessing and changing mindsets requires a new toolset, but leaders are beginning (just now beginning) to understand that the mindset a person brings to the table determines their behavior. There’s still a lot of confusion, rejection and ignorance surround the entire notion of mindsets. It’s been thoroughly documented that a person’s fundamental thinking determines behavior. Carol Dweck’s seminal work on the fixed versus the growth mindset is the best research-based and popular presentation on the subject. But that’s only two mindsets, while the business mindsets that get in the way of development vary from corporation to corporation and from individual to individual.The first problem, one that McKinsey ignores, is the diagnosis of mindsets, a tough task in and of itself. For the astute, knowledgeable coach, one-on-one development provides an opportunity for spotting them, talking about them and making change. But that’s not an instant process by any stretch of the imagination. Jeff Pfeffer also provides a useful example for identifying and changing mindsets as a good introduction to the validity and process of changing mindsets.I’ve also found that installing high-level decision making, including the popular ladder of influence, is especially helpful for a leader to gain insight into mindsets, how to challenge them and how to begin to change them.But it’s a lot harder to learn and change than most think. Managers have relied on their current intuition for years and years. Changing means that they’ve got to admit that they’ve made costly mistakes over years and years. The truth, then, is tough to take. Furthermore, managers have reached a level of professional success, been praised for that success and reaped for rewards for that success. So as far as they’re concerned, it ain’t broke, and they’re going to need a lot of reasons to fix it. In addition, often the idea that their skills could be lacking just doesn’t compute. That means we’re also likely to avoid such hard truths.Changing mindsets is key to putting an end to leadership training failure. But it’s not an overnight fix.Photo by afs.org
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Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail

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In an insightful and practical paper, McKinsey addresses four reasons why leadership programs fail. Three were standard fare, but with a thorough-explanation, rationale and suggested resolution of the problem. The fourth issue was especially insightful. It’s one that’s very difficult to deal with in group sessions, but very significant. I’ve dealt successfully with it in one-on-ones, but it’s a different animal, especially tough in group sessions. I’ll explain the why and how further on, moving beyond what the McKinsey report has to say.

Since there’s fairly widespread knowledge about three of the insights, I’ll summarize them briefly. McKinsey emphasizes that failure comes from overlooking context, decoupling reflection from real work and failing to measure results.

–Overlooking context. Expertise in one situation does not guarantee expertise in another. So successful training will focus upon the specific organizational and/or group context. Limit the development to two or three issues for effective learning. My program typically works with an executive in face-face situations for a year, inside the organizational premises. That includes about 15 sessions, exceptionally focused and customized. The issues might include such competencies as collaboration, interdisciplinary networking, team facilitation, high-quality decision-making or enhanced coaching skills. My experience throughout the US and Latin America reveals that issues involving relationships—both employee and customer–tend to be the most needed areas of expertise.

–Decoupling reflection from real work. The rewards of off-site training are limited. In fact, the research finds that adults walk away from that training with just 10% of what they hear in the classroom. But pushing employees to reflect while providing actual work experiences can be especially difficult for most companies. It’s not easy, as McKinsey says, to create opportunities that simultaneously address high-priority needs—say, accelerating a new-product launch, turning around a sales region, negotiating an external partnership, or developing a new digital-marketing strategy—and provide personal-development opportunities for the participants.

Some companies provide a consultancy to support and push the leader to reflect while working on a relevant project. When the company is able to do this, it can result in significant leadership improvement.

–Measuring results. Evaluation of results is often a set-up for gaming the system. In these settings, the leader pays lip service to the importance of the training, but has no real evidence to quantify the value of the development. McKinsey suggests three strategies. Monitor the participants development after the training, observing promotions and retention issues. Try to monitor the business impact. Finally, begin the development process with a 360 feedback program, either with survey material or interviewing. Then six to twelve months after the program, assess again with a 360 feedback program involving the same original participants.

Measuring is an absolutely necessity for a number of reasons. Organizations won’t and shouldn’t invest in training that doesn’t improve the leader, the culture and, directly or indirectly, the bottom line 

Underestimating mindsets
Mindsets or mental models are the high leverage place for focusing developmental intervention. Management and relational systems are always built upon some implicit or explicit models of human behavior. And most of them have had a lot of reinforcement until they are largely out of our awareness. But they are often the culprit in our failures to develop and achieve.

Diagnosing, assessing and changing mindsets requires a new toolset, but leaders are beginning (just now beginning) to understand that the mindset a person brings to the table determines their behavior. There’s still a lot of confusion, rejection and ignorance surround the entire notion of mindsets. It’s been thoroughly documented that a person’s fundamental thinking determines behavior. Carol Dweck’s seminal work on the fixed versus the growth mindset is the best research-based and popular presentation on the subject. But that’s only two mindsets, while the business mindsets that get in the way of development vary from corporation to corporation and from individual to individual.

The first problem, one that McKinsey ignores, is the diagnosis of mindsets, a tough task in and of itself. For the astute, knowledgeable coach, one-on-one development provides an opportunity for spotting them, talking about them and making change. But that’s not an instant process by any stretch of the imagination. Jeff Pfeffer also provides a useful example for identifying and changing mindsets as a good introduction to the validity and process of changing mindsets.

I’ve also found that installing high-level decision making, including the popular ladder of influence, is especially helpful for a leader to gain insight into mindsets, how to challenge them and how to begin to change them.

But it’s a lot harder to learn and change than most think. Managers have relied on their current intuition for years and years. Changing means that they’ve got to admit that they’ve made costly mistakes over years and years. The truth, then, is tough to take. Furthermore, managers have reached a level of professional success, been praised for that success and reaped for rewards for that success. So as far as they’re concerned, it ain’t broke, and they’re going to need a lot of reasons to fix it. In addition, often the idea that their skills could be lacking just doesn’t compute. That means we’re also likely to avoid such hard truths.

Changing mindsets is key to putting an end to leadership training failure. But it’s not an overnight fix.

Photo by afs.org

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