I recently read a McKinsey Quarterly article on “Why leadership-development programs fail”. The article highlights several factors that, while appearing obvious on the surface, are often misunderstood: overlooking context, decoupling reflection from real work, underestimating mind-sets and failing to measure results.
Since I have personal experience of some of these pitfalls, I thought I could enhance the lessons from the McKinsey article by sharing some of my observations; thus, enabling you to make the right decisions when it comes to developing leaders within your own organisation.
Let’s start with the first pitfall: overlooking context. The article points out that a brilliant leader in one situation may not perform well in another. Although this is not unusual, it makes you wonder whether that person was a real leader to start with. Real leaders are able to anticipate and adapt to any situation because they carry more than one arrow in their quiver. Just because a formula worked in the past does not mean it will work forever. Different situations demand different approaches and tools. Versatility is an important trait of good leadership. People who stick to the tried and proven approach often do so because they are comfortable with it or, even worse, because they don’t know what else to do – not exactly a sign of strong leadership.
But I guess this also proves the point that a generic approach to leadership development – the one size fits all attitude – is not appropriate. Everyone is different; someone’s strength is someone else’s weakness. This almost guarantees that in a classroom setting someone will be bored. This may also help explain why the article points out that adults retain just ten per cent of what they learn in the classroom. Personally, instead of trying to fight against this phenomenon, I prefer to use it to our advantage by pairing up executives who display the opposite strengths and weaknesses. For example, someone with great personal skills could be matched with someone who has difficulties with people but who is brilliant at strategic thinking. This not only helps individuals, it strengthens the leadership team by reinforcing the bonds between senior leaders. This approach also helps bridge the second pitfall – decoupling reflection from real work – because it provides leaders with time to reflect and analyse their own performance in a non-threatening setting. It also encourages growth and development because it allows leaders to monitor their progress – thereby addressing the last pitfall of failing to measure results.
The remaining pitfall – underestimating mind-sets – is more difficult to deal with. In most organisations, there exists a huge gap between the top floor and the shop floor. Leaders are so far removed from the day-to-day activities of the organisation that they have often lost their sense of reality. This misunderstanding frequently leads to suboptimal policies and plays to internal politics and infighting. Without understanding the real organisational dynamic behind undesirable behaviours, it is unlikely that sustainable behavioural change can be achieved. As the article points out, people’s actions are often derived from entrenched beliefs, which regularly go unquestioned simply because they are so obvious. This is where consultants – who are not tainted by years of “business as usual” – can add considerable value. They can provide an unbiased view of reality and identify the drivers of undesirable behaviours. Consultants provide leaders with a unique opportunity to look at themselves in the mirror and map out the shortest way to get results.
Francis Lambert – Zabok, 20 January 2014