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How do you grow great leaders?

Management Futures
October 31, 2023

While a good line manager will transform our growth and development, a poor one can make team members lives a living hell.

MF’s Simon Eastwood and John Bull look at the problems with traditional leadership development programmes and identify 3 key learnings that can transform their impact.

It is hard to overstate the impact the quality of line management has on us as individuals, and on organisational performance.

We hear stories related to this every day, and from people at all types of organisations. Additionally in recent times John has witnessed it very close to home, as two of his children started full time jobs for the first time.

One has been lucky to experience great leadership and mentorship. They’ve been excited, they’ve grown a phenomenal amount in just a short time, and they’ve become more self-confident.

Conversely, the other had to endure extremely poor line management. Thankfully they were able to change teams after 6 months, but it really bought home how frustrating poor line management is, how talents are underutilised and development stunted.

The sad reality is this is far too common, and it needs to change.

The problem with traditional leadership development programmes

Most organisations recognise the importance of leadership skills and many invest a significant amount in trying to develop them.

The problem is that too often these programmes don’t change behaviour. They focus primarily on knowledge and concepts. So participants leave with a clear intent of how they want to lead differently, but not with the skills to do so.

7 years ago, we set out to start trying to evaluate the percentage of participants on any programme who succeed in making a significant shift in their skills, habits and impact as leaders.

Our ultimate ambition is to help every participant achieve a positive and permanent shift in their effectiveness and impact as a leader. While we’re not there yet, we have learned a lot about what works and what success depends on – with 3 key learnings rising to the top.

Learning One: Get people excited about leadership development

The first step in developing great leaders is to ignite a desire to be really good, and then build their confidence that the skills are learnable.

The best predictor of how far a leader will go in their development is their desire to work at improving. It is not as common as you might expect, or as you might hope. This is why we invest plenty of energy on it.

Some years ago, we tested this by giving participants on a business simulation the option to receive feedback from the trainers who had spent two days observing their leadership skills.

Previously observational feedback had been mandatory for everyone on the programme, and we knew the vast majority had found it incredibly useful – many citing its positive impact as a turning point in their development.

However, when we made this feedback offer optional – simply by clicking a link to book in a meeting - only 25% chose to do so. We had to find out why, and unearthed 2 key barriers contributing to this apathy:

  1. Complacency

    Far too often, once people believe they are a ‘good leader’, their hunger for learning wanes significantly. They turn up to programmes looking for a few tips, not significant change. They underestimate the impact of pushing what may be a potential strength to the next level.

    Research published in HBR by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman showed that leaders who are rated as ‘exceptional’ by their peers and the people they manage, are two to three times more effective in their impact on performance than those who are merely rated as ‘good’.

    ‍We’ve found sharing this research with participants, and asking them to benchmark themselves against the top 5% of managers, has a great impact on engagement. It changes how they view the programme. When people challenge themselves to a higher standard, whatever the skill, they automatically become more hungry for insights and feedback that can help them in that pursuit.
  1. Fixed Mindset

    A surprisingly high percentage of people seem to believe our skill as leaders is fixed. Interestingly, while most embrace the idea that they can get better at, say catching a ball, with focused practice, they see leadership ability as some kind of gene you are either born with or not.

    We’ve found the fastest way to change this belief is by helping people to make an immediate shift through some focused practice and feedback. Once people see they can improve, and get feedback on the difference it makes, their motivation goes up significantly.

Which brings us on to our second big learning.

Learning Two: Put a heavy focus on practice and feedback

In 2007, Dr Anders Ericsson published a paper summarising 15 years of research from many scientists around the world into what enables people to master a skill; whether it be music, sport, surgery, flying or the interpersonal skills of leadership.

The paper highlighted that the single most important factor in an individual’s level of competence is the amount and quality of what he called 'deliberate practice'.

Whether it be speaking with impact, giving feedback, asking great questions, collaborating or staying calm under pressure; leadership skills are no different to any other skill. To be the best we can be we need to practice them, and get useful feedback.

By useful feedback, we mean feedback that is specific and evidence based. It also important to note that to really grasp the insights, refine their approach, and apply learnings participants need to feel safe when the feedback is shared.

We challenge ourselves to ensure 70% of time people spend with us on a programme is experiential, allowing participants to practice and get feedback on their skills. Do, review, do again and at each stage raising their bar of self-awareness. The higher that experiential percentage, the greater the impact and engagement of participants.

One example of a programme rich in practice and feedback is our Courageous Conversations programme. Within it participants first watch an example of a difficult conversation played out, initially highlighting the two most common traps people fall into – avoidance or aggression – before showing them a model of skilled candour.

They then work in small groups of no more than 4 colleagues to practice and receive feedback on their real scenario with one of our trainers.

96% of participants say this half day session is still having a positive impact on their effectiveness six months later.

Learning Three: As an organisation, you have to demand excellence

To develop exceptional leadership, you have to create an environment that demands it.

Too often organisations commissioning a programme fall into the trap of thinking they can somehow 'delegate' leadership development to a training provider; ignoring the fact that the vast majority of learning will happen on the job.  

In our experience, the best results occur when a great development programme is complemented by a high level of challenge and support from within the organisation.

Organisations we work with value our guidance as to how they help create an environment that supports growth. We’ve found these 4 characteristics to be the most important:

  1. Clarity on what good leadership behaviour looks like in this organisation.

    Setting out what people should expect from their line manager in a ‘leadership promise’ is highly valued.
  2. Leadership by example from the top.

    Senior leaders need to model the behaviours they want to see in others. We recommend using a 360 process to raise awareness of how well they are ‘living’ the standards set out in their leadership promise.

    They need to demonstrate that they are as open to working on their leadership skills as anyone.
  1. Line management support for the programme, holding people accountable for applying the learning.

    We ensure line managers have a good overview of what the programme is focusing on. We also take time to consider their role in providing additional challenge and support to reinforce the learning.

    We ask them to check in with participants after each module on what the key learnings were, and how they’re getting on with applying them. In addition to providing an opportunity for mentoring support, these check ins send a clear message they are expecting to see positive shifts.

    We also encourage them to look out for situations that are likely to challenge participants' leadership skills, and use these as ideal learning opportunities for coaching and reflection.
  1. Some means of feedback on their impact as leaders, and accountability for this.

    Organisations need to send a clear message that how we lead matters; that mediocre or poor line management will not be tolerated.

    As an example of what good can look like, leaders at Innocent Drinks receive 360 feedback twice a year. They are offered support in addressing key areas to work on, and if they fail to address a weakness which their team feels is getting in the way of performance more than twice, they are out. Too many organisations are far too accepting of poor management and leadership skills. The negative impact on organisational culture is huge.

To summarise…

The impact of a leadership programme depends on 3 factors:

1.     How effectively it inspires people about their potential to improve

2.     How much of the programme is focused on practice and feedback of the skills

3.     How effectively we as providers help you to reinforce the desired behaviours internally

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