What should modern leadership development look like?

Leadership development
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Blaire Palmer
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for CEOs and their teams
That People Thing
Columnist
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Blaire Palmer has been in the leadership development field for nearly 2 decades. And in that time she’s experienced plenty of fads. But rarely has she come across leadership development that really works. In this two-part series Blaire busts some myths about leadership development and offers some alternatives that might actually create more leadership.

If there was a way to design leadership development that was guaranteed to work I would describe it here. Honest. But there isn’t. And the reason is not only that your business is unique. It is in many ways but, frankly, the challenges you’re facing and the leadership behaviours you’re trying to change aren’t unique to you.

Most companies I work with are suffering the same problems to a greater or lesser degree.

The real reason I can’t give you a single right answer is because it doesn’t work like that.

Leadership development isn’t a one hit wonder. It’s a lifelong process of evolution. And for HR and L&D the job is to provide opportunities for leaders or those on the journey to leadership (which is more accurate) to be able to grow and learn as they go.

The image that comes to mind is of a fish tank and you’re sprinkling fish food on the surface...

Fish swim to the surface to feed and then get back on with their lives in the tank. You keep sprinkling the fish food and those who are hungry pop to the surface to re-fuel.

You keep an eye on the tank – is it big enough, does it need more diversity to keep it healthy, are you keeping it clean or do you have enough of the fish who eat the algae and keep it clean themselves, have any of the fish become aggressive, is there a new filter available that will provide more oxygen, is there a new fish food that is tastier and healthier for your tank?

Maybe fish in a tank isn’t quite the right analogy but you get what I mean. You’re constantly adjusting the environment, you’re part of the eco-system and you don’t just wrench the fish out of the tank once every 6 months to do a deep clean. You don’t feed them once and then wonder why that wasn’t enough.

But, having said there is no right way to do leadership development (and moving swiftly away from the fish tank analogy!) there are some ideas that are proving popular and making a positive impact and that address the myths I identified in Part 1. Here are a few –

1. Content-Free Leadership Development

Leadership development has relied heavily on content. Models, tools and data have been liberally applied to justify the investment of time and money in training. But some of the best leadership development is content free.

This might not apply to management training. Maybe models are useful here. I don’t know. It’s not my field. But when it comes to leadership there isn’t anything to “learn” that comes from a process or model. It’s about self-awareness, inner reflection, sharing ideas, getting feedback from peers, getting support, being challenged, looking at topics from different angles.

When small groups of individuals on the journey to leadership spend time together in reflection they will draw on books they’ve read or tools they’ve heard of, and the facilitator/coach/trainer will be able to throw in concepts too. But these arise as relevant and are treated with a light touch. The group use them to spark their thinking rather than as gospel.

One reason this approach works is that it treats leaders like leaders. If you want people who can think, who can reflect, who can draw on experiences and filter out the lessons, who can listen and challenge with respect and curiosity, then design leadership development this way too. It doesn’t make sense to say you want leaders who can have the tough conversations and make the tough decisions and then design leadership development that protects them from having tough conversations or making tough decisions.

There will be resistance to content-free development programmes…until the culture starts shifting in a meaningful way. 

2. Mindful practices

Increasingly I notice posters on the back of the toilet cubicle doors in the companies I work with advertising lunchtime meditation, yoga on a Tuesday, and energy balancing every other Thursday. I love this. It’s a great start. But I really think you can be braver.

The problem is that such activities are marginal AND they are a sticking plaster over a culture that embodies all the opposites of meditation, yoga and energy balancing. Even if employees have time to go to such sessions and even if they feel they won’t be ridiculed for “needing” to meditate, such activities make the high octane, high stress, adrenaline fuelled working culture tolerable. They don’t fix it.

Forward thinking companies are increasingly looking for ways to embed mindful practices in to the working culture. What if meetings started with a check in? What if we shifted away from working hours to a results based culture and stopped talking about how hard we worked as a way to gain approval and promotion? What if people listened mindfully to others and to their own thoughts? What if we slowed everything right, right down?

Theory U has it that leadership is possible when we listen to ideas that will change our world view and then reflect upon them until the next step reveals itself. At that point we act immediately. This is what a mindful organisation looks like. And leadership development that focuses on becoming aware, slowing down ones thinking, opening up ones mind to alternative ways of seeing and then being willing to act when the next step emerges takes Meditation Monday to a whole new level.

3. Just-In-Time Development

As I said in part 1 of this series, the opportunities to learn and grow are there every moment of the day. A training course is a poor substitute for just-in-time learning.

The challenge is how to spot those opportunities for learning when you’re sitting with your HR colleagues in one part of the business and the leaders and their teams are somewhere else unobserved.

Of course, you want your leaders to spot these opportunities for learning themselves. You want them to become better coaches of their teams, to form coaching relationships with peers and seek feedback and input, to set aside time to reflect each week on their own performance and how they could have improved…but they don’t. Not yet anyway.

And sending them on a course to learn how to do this isn’t, as we’ve seen, the answer.    

Increasingly I believe L&D, or coaches, or expert facilitators should be embedded in to the every day workings of the business. They’re not there to do Training Needs Analyses, or to help the team keep time in meetings or to compensate for the inadequacies of the leader to take care of his own team.

They have a very specific role to be spotting opportunities for learning, highlighting these and enabling the conversation. They don’t get in the way of a good debate or disrupt the flow of activity unnecessarily, but they provide a third dimension to proceedings.

Counsellor Troi from Star Trek – The Next Generation comes to mind! She was there, in the action, sitting on the Bridge right next to the captain. Picard took her insights in to account just as he took insights from Number One, Commander Riker, in to account.

It can take some getting used to for the employees as well as the coach. People are used to meetings being driven by the agenda. Time is limited and getting through all the items is hard enough already. No one wants meetings to be even longer. There’s real work to do. And being interrupted mid-flow to have the flaws in your leadership pointed out doesn’t sound appealing.

For the coach it’s tricky too.

You can sit for hours not contributing, just watching and listening, while everyone wonders what exactly you’re being paid for.

When you do speak it’s to ask a question that everyone rejects as irrelevant (ether because it is or because they really, really don’t want to talk about it and they hate that you’ve noticed what they’ve been stepping over for years). The team can turn on you especially if you haven’t been with them for long and lack credibility with them. And you can get lost particularly if the topic is highly technical or just very boring. Trust me. All these things have happened to me.      

But what I’m talking about here is a fundamental shift in culture which does take some getting used to on all sides.

Yes meetings slow down and can take longer. But the idea is that by spotting that a conversation has been going around in circles for the last 30 minutes, or that the discussion was shut down before a decision was made, or that this topic doesn’t appear to be relevant to most people in the room and questioning why it’s on the agenda at all, everyone ultimately makes better use of their time.

And the coaching isn’t just about the format or effectiveness of the meeting but about the thinking. The best team coaches (whether they are drawn from internally or externally), spot assumptions, myths, beliefs, opportunities for lateral thinking, ask different questions, see themes or habits, invigorate others, find opportunities for fun and humour, encourage creativity and break up the monotony of work.

It's their job to think about how people are working and how they can work even better, on even more meaningful stuff that sets their passions alight, rather than thinking about what people are working on and whether they are doing enough stuff.

Ultimately it’s what leadership COULD be about.

If leaders saw themselves in this role rather than as the decision-maker, solution-finder, boss, superior mind, holder of sensitive information, maker or breaker of careers, he or she-who-must-be-obeyed etc, then the leader could become a pure coach, detached from their own ego (beyond the fulfilment that comes from enabling others).

And seeing someone do this role in their team, someone who holds them to account, challenges them, encourages them to become more coach-like, more curious, more delighted by the ever-increasing capability of others, may inspire them to evolve too.

Of course, there will be plenty of other approaches to leadership development beyond these three. There are some great courses. I love a good old leadership retreat with lots of strategic thinking, lots of drinking and lots of personal revelations! Working with a coach 1-2-1 (something I still offer) has an important place in leadership development.

Having the opportunity to reflect privately on ones own thinking patterns and inner world is vital, especially for those in the most senior roles. Programmes where delegates work on a real, business critical project together and stretch their leadership muscle that way work very well. And there will be other approaches too.

Keep sprinkling the fish food, keep changing things around, keep your leaders on their toes!

But just remember that leaders are only leaders if they’re leading. And leadership development is only leadership development if it’s actually developing leaders. Rethinking the assumptions that underpin how you have attempted to achieve that will reveal new answers.

Removing a reliance on content, improving the mindfulness of your business and taking learning out of the classroom and embedding it in to the life of the workplace will help. And you’ll discover that while it isn’t easy (easy solutions are rarely the answer) the solutions you generate may be much, much simpler. And simple is good! 

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