What’s wrong with leadership development?

By Dr. Sydney Finkelstein

[hb_separator style=”normal”] It’s more important for success than strategy, technology and even products. The only way for an organisation to survive and thrive long-term: the ability to generate and regenerate talent on a continual basis.

But how?

Of all the things we do to educate, the least valuable are the endless hours we force people to sit still and … ‘learn’.

Having spent ten years studying this question, and even more time designing and delivering talent development programmes and activities for dozens of companies around the world, I’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t. These are four hard-and-fast rules for what works.


Rule 1: 70-20-10

Have you ever sat in a classroom all day for a training programme, wondering “how did I get here?” Of all the things we do to educate – whether during school years or on the job – the least valuable of all are the endless hours we force people to sit still and … “learn”.

The 70-20-10 rule – popularised by the Center for Creative Leadership – suggests learning from challenging assignments should account for 70% of training time, with 20% from peer-to-peer learning and just 10% from traditional coursework. The best programmes will integrate all three.

In a word, it’s about learning by doing, adjusting based on constant feedback, failing fast when necessary, and continuously iterating to get closer to where you need to be. Static one-way learning on its own just can’t do that.


Rule 2: Eat your own cooking

I find it fascinating when a leadership development programme is rolled out to managers without the participation of senior executives. There is no replacement for having some skin in the game – by being involved as teachers, facilitators and coaches. And maybe even more important, if the CEO thinks it’s wise for middle managers to learn about, say, design thinking, why is the top management team not doing the same or similar?

Not only does participation of higher-ups enhance the credibility of the activity, but it also helps a wider set of key decision makers share a common logic and language. And that’s a building block for culture, the bedrock DNA of all organisations.


Rule 3: Customize to your world

Business schools and consulting and training organizations love to sell stuff off the shelf. It’s easier, it’s proven, it’s faster. But what works in the fashion industry is not necessarily right in natural resources. It makes sense for core themes – around strategy, for example – to be part of any management development programme, but what strategy means in fashion and mining is obviously different.

The best of the “competency models” that have taken hold among the HR corporate community, which define what it means to be a leader, need to reflect differences in seniority, job focus and what matters most in the industry.

Just like the best managers customise how they manage people on their teams, the same is true about the specific experience and content needed to train a generation of leaders. How could it not be? One size most definitely does not fit all. One solution I’ve seen that has considerable potential are digital learning platforms that curate what each manager needs to do and learn to move forward as a leader.


Rule 4: The best leadership teacher is your boss

The single best piece of advice I have for any CEO looking to accelerate leadership development and training in her company is to focus on the bosses, up and down the hierarchy. The amount of time an aspiring manager spends with her boss dwarfs the time she might spend in formal training programmes.

Do the bosses in your organization know what they need to do to boost the capabilities of their staff? Can they identify new challenges without being handcuffed by career ladders that often limit potential? Is that work being integrated into other leadership activities? It helps to have key bosses as business partners in leadership development efforts. Are you monitoring progress, both for the bosses and their team members, tracking how effective each boss is in generating and regenerating talent?

Vast amounts of money — into the tens of billions — are spent on leadership training every year, but the return on investment almost certainly doesn’t match up. Despite this, senior executives continue to give the green light for another round, magically hoping that results will materialize while not doing anything different. It’s not easy, but why handcuff yourself from the start? Maybe it’s time to start following some new rules.

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Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

His new book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).

Buy Superbosses here: