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Ferns growing in a forest

How to grow exceptional leaders

John Bull
February 1, 2018

While effective leadership development can transform a culture and performance, far too many programmes have little long term impact. By studying organisations who have turned leadership development into a competitive advantage, as well as examples of our own programmes that have had the biggest impact, we've distilled 4 key ingredients.

Turning leadership development into a competitive advantage:

In 120 years of business; GE have not had a 'dud' leader as CEO. This is not by luck. From the very beginning, they have sought to make their leadership of people, and their ability to develop leaders, a defining strength. Jack Welch, their famous CEO from 1981 to 2001, took this focus on leadership development to another level. While cutting costs elsewhere, he invested heavily in the GE leadership centre and committed more than twenty percent of his personal time to it. You can spot the effectiveness and impact of an ex GE manager a long way away. They are not unique in this; the British Army, the food group Mars, Virgin and WL Gore are also great examples of organisations with a proven track record of developing great leaders.

Here's how to go about it and some traps to be wary of.

Key ingredient one - switch people on to their development

Begin by igniting in people the desire to be exceptional, and the belief that exceptional is possible. Get them to reflect on the impact an exceptional leader can have. Recent research from Harvard highlights that leaders who are rated as exceptional by the team they lead have more than twice the impact on performance as those that are rated as 'good'.  

When people challenge themselves to a higher standard, they automatically become hungrier for insights and feedback that can help them in that pursuit.

Desire to improve, combined with high quality support, is the best predictor of how far a participant on a programme will develop.

The traps...

The greatest barrier to learning on programmes is the complacency participants turn up with. The majority of leaders stop challenging themselves to grow once they feel they've reached an 'OK' level of competence. Combine this with research from the London School of Business that shows that 88% of managers believe they are above average, and you see the issue!

If people already believe they are good enough, at best they're going to be looking to refine their approach or get a few tips. This is not a mindset that is conducive to a sustained shift in behaviour.

By inspiring these same managers with examples of exceptional leadership and the impact they can have, you send a message that 'OK is not good enough'. Most find the idea of being challenged to a much higher standard exciting, and their energy shifts towards a hunger to learn.

Key ingredient two -  demand excellence

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 itself. To develop exceptional leadership, you first must create an environment that demands it.

For example, in one of our most successful programmes, each participant was given the challenge of presenting to the Board in 12 months' time how they had used the programme to raise the performance of their part of the business. They were each paired with a member of the senior team as a mentor. Either the CEO or a Director would listen to, encourage and challenge their emerging ideas on how the business could raise its game. The transformation in these managers over the 12 months was astounding.

The traps...

Firstly, too often organisations approach leadership development with the aim of producing good leaders, not great ones. Consequently, the development programmes they offer are not challenging or inspiring enough.

Secondly, senior managers commissioning these programmes 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.

Thirdly there is often a failure to send out a very clear message that you will not tolerate mediocre leadership.

As a contrast to this, at Innocent managers get 360° feedback twice a year, and if they fail to address a weakness getting in the way of performance more than twice then the 'three strikes and out' rule applies.

Key ingredient three - put a heavy focus on practice and feedback

The goal is not to develop experts in leadership. The goal is to develop great leaders. Knowledge is an important part of the development, it helps shift  mindsets. But a focus on knowledge has nowhere near the impact as a focus on skills and behaviour.

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. His paper highlighted the amount and quality of what he called 'deliberate practice' as the single most important factor in an individual's level of competence. By deliberate practice he meant a level of focus where by the individual is concentrating on improvement before, during and after any opportunity to use the skill.

Leadership skills are like any other skills; they require deliberate practice to master them. Knowing what you should do is not enough.

The best leadership programmes will put a heavy emphasis on skills practice and feedback; both in the training room and in drawing out the learning from real experience on the job.

The traps...

Traditionally, programmes have put a much greater focus on building people's knowledge about leadership, instead of self-awareness around the impact of their current approach and skills to improve it. The most damming comment a programme can receive is feedback like 'this sounds great, but my manager went on this programme, and their style is appalling!'

In recent years we've started putting a much greater focus on benchmarking people's skills, to ensure they know exactly where they are against a high standard. The impact of this shift has been huge.  

Key ingredient four - give people the opportunity to stretch themselves

It should not surprise us that the most powerful way to develop leadership is by putting people in a situation which requires them to 'step up' as a leader. Ultimately, the role of development programmes should be to support people in stepping up to big challenges. HSBC are a great example of an organisation that understand this. They recognise that no programme can replace the richness of learning in a challenge like setting up a new branch in a developing country.

The traps...

Unfortunately, it is very common for participants to complain that they return to the job inspired to act differently but are then never given the responsibility or authority to try these ideas. This links to a trap we discussed earlier - organisations thinking they can delegate development to training departments or external providers.

To summarise

  • Raise the bar on your development activity by setting out to develop exceptional leaders.
  • Ignite in your people the desire to be exceptional, and grow in them the belief they can be - get them to benchmark themselves to a much higher standard.
  • Create an environment that demands them to excel (OK is not OK), supports them in their development, and does not tolerate mediocre leadership skills and conduct.
  • Give developing managers a level of responsibility and autonomy that requires (and allows them) to step up as leaders.

Finally, remember that great leaders are made rather than born. Yes, some people are born with natural leadership tendencies, but there are no examples of genuinely great leaders who have not worked exceptionally hard at it. There are also many examples of great leaders who were completely lacking in natural talent. Ghandhi had to leave India as a young lawyer due to a lack of confidence to stand up in court, and when he gave his first speech, all but 3 people walked out. By working at it, he became fairly good at it!

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