Today's Leadership Development Approach Does Not Work

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A 2012 survey of 500 executives conducted by The Conference Board found two-thirds of the respondents named leadership development as their top human capital priority.

However, a study by Accenture found that only 8% of surveyed executives feel their company is proficient in developing leaders. Additionally, a study by the Corporate Leadership Council found people management training improved productivity by only 2%.

Although leadership development is perceived as important, today's paradigm doesn't seem to work.

The reason is simple. Leadership is a complex skill. But today's leadership development approaches are inconsistent with tried and true skill development paradigms.

Take, for example, playing the piano. The standard development method is, at a minimum, a weekly one-on-one lesson with a teacher followed by an hour, each day, of focused practice.

We all know that to achieve even moderate piano skills, years of lessons and practice are needed. There are very few, if any, master pianists who started their training in adulthood.

Or, consider golf. Like learning piano, becoming an expert golfer requires a coach, one-on-one lessons several times a week, and daily practice. The best golfers break their game into pieces: long drives, approach shots, sand traps, putting, etc. Then they focus on one piece and repeatedly practice until it is mastered. Most importantly, golfers receive immediate feedback. Immediate feedback is what makes golf fun.

Let's compare skill development paradigms of piano and golf to leadership development.

In many large companies, leadership training begins after a manager is promoted -- when a manager reaches his/her late 20s or early 30s. If 30 years old is too late to master a complex skill such as speaking a foreign language, could it also be too late to master leadership?

Corporate leadership training is commonly conducted in episodic classes that last from three days to two weeks. But how useful are these big gulp classes? Once a pitcher is full, the water runs down the sides. Two months after the class, a participant will be lucky to remember two or three concepts. Would a big gulp strategy be effective for learning to play the piano?

Typical leadership development classes use knowledge to teach skills -- like using PowerPoint slides to teach swimming. And too often, class instruction is theoretical and without context. For example, Maslow and Herzberg are common topics. But is teaching Theory X and Theory Y really the best way to improve sales pipeline reviews?

Here's a better way.

Buy Leaders, Build Managers. If your company wants outstanding leaders, recruit employees with a history of leadership - buy leaders, build managers. Leading effectively across different contexts requires many years of practice. Hire young managers with a history of successful leadership experiences and teach them to how to manage in your company.

For example, teach sales managers how to set quota in your company, how to coach sales reps, how to conduct a motivating pipeline review. Is that "leadership" or "management"? It's both.

Measure. Motivate managers to improve their leadership capabilities. Make leadership excellence the primary criterion for promotion. Promotions should be based on the proven ability to build a powerful organization.

Do not assess leadership as part of a performance appraisal. Appraisals reward in-year value contributions.

Sure, measures of leadership are not as pure as a golf handicap. But who cares? The purpose of a measure is to focus attention, motivate and provide feedback. An impure leadership measure, such as a 360°, is fine for accomplishing those objectives.

Teach, Practice and Teach. Great athletes focus on perfecting the basics. The same should be true when strengthening leadership.

Stop reading leadership theories and don't rely on competency models -- both are too high-level for practical development.

Competency-based development is often ineffective. Can you really improve the "Drive to Achieve" competency? It is difficult, maybe impossible, to teach a person whom to be. But it is very practical to teach a person what to do.

Teach "what to do" by breaking down the manager's job into four to six major activities -- just as a golfer breaks down his game. Then spend several months with a coach practicing a single activity until the coach and the manager's direct reports feel that leadership has improved. Then, move on to the next activity.

Leadership is a complex skill. When developing leaders, deploy standard skill development practices. First, buy the right talent - those with years of successful leadership experience. Second, measure leadership performance and make it the primary criterion for promotion. Third, break down the leader's job into four to six discreet pieces. Fourth, develop each piece in the context of the job and organization. Coach, practice, adjust; then coach, practice, and adjust. After many repetitions, what currently feels unnatural will begin to feel natural.

Most business leaders want a quick solution for improving leadership. But whether developing great violinists or great business leaders, mastering complex skills takes tremendous focus and effort. There are no shortcuts.

 

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

Hall was formerly Senior Vice President of Talent at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness.

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