Context is key in leadership development efforts

‍Have you ever been disappointed when your leaders went through training or other development efforts, but there was no apparant change or application of what they learned?  As they go back excited after learning new ways of thinking, behaving, and leading, they will find they are more influenced by the system around them than by their own desire to change.  

Organizations are complex systems.  They are made up of many components that influence how an organization and its people behave: values, strategies, organizational structure, leadership style, role definitions, processes and policies, rewards and consequences.  When trying to develop leaders, organizations cannot simply focus on training and coaching around new behaviors while ignoring the environment within which the leaders work every day.  If the environment isn’t set up to support the leaders’ learning, they will be set up to fail.

There is no “silver bullet”, so organizations must be thoughtful and deliberate about designing development efforts that take the whole system into consideration.

Solve the right problem.  Identify what it is you are trying to accomplish with your leadership development efforts and diagnose what is preventing that from happening today.  You will find that learning may be part of the problem, but likely you will also find barriers like a lack of clear direction, unclear or conflicting priorities, lack of open communication, lack of resources (including time and people), and inadequate role models for the desired behaviors.  Look at data, talk to people at all levels to identify the issues, and put a holistic plan together that includes, but doesn’t rely solely on, formal learning.

Context matters.  Starting leadership development efforts with front-line or middle managers without addressing those behaviors and actions at the top can doom your efforts.  The system shapes them more than they shape the system.  To accomplish the desired results, what else needs to be addressed: organizational structure, role definitions, individual and/or organizational performance metrics, the leadership style of senior leaders?

Their learning must be supported when they are back on the job, including positive role models.  As with any change, new leadership training and other development efforts are most effective when championed by senior leaders—this creates motivation to learn, and ensures the environment they are in allows them to apply what they’ve learned.

Adjust as needed.  Don’t rely on a “one size fits all” approach.  Identify how needs vary by organization, by level, and over time.  Different parts of the organization may have local cultures, values, and leadership styles that require changes in the approach.  If the organization is going through a major change, what leaders need at the beginning of that change curve will be different than what they will need after the changes have been implemented.

Lastly, once you have clearly identified the problem, select metrics to measure the success of your efforts at the individual and organizational level.  As HR leaders, we need to get better at measuring the impact of our efforts, including successes, but also where things didn’t turn out as expected.  Let’s take our own advice and be able to learn from our experiences.  It’s the only way to continuously improve ourselves and our organizations.

You won’t realize true change without equipping your leaders with the right learning and preparing the organization to support them.

Embarking on a leadership development effort in your organization? Trying to change your leadership culture? Let's talk.

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