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Why Leadership Development Programs Fail: Revolutionizing On-The-Job

September 1, 2015
Borderless Leadership

In response to an argument McKinsey made for why leadership development programs fail, we made two cases for how they succeed: when they set and communicate realistic expectations, and when they are built on solid, empirical research foundations Going beyond the debate on why programs succeed or fail, I’d like to share some bold ways to implement effective leadership development programs.

We have worked with and observed organizations that are creating real, far-reaching changes in how leadership development participants apply what they have learned on the job. They are fundamentally reshaping the environment in which their learners work and, therefore, redefining the 70 in the 70:20:10 model .

Leadership development professionals clearly know the barriers that block true application of new skills and ideas back on the job. Lack of manager/senior leader support, cultural norms, resistant colleagues, and overwhelming job demands all get in the way of lasting behavior change.  Many of these revolve around the job context in which participants are expected to try new things.  And aside from application projects defined for participants as a part of a program, it seems that little can be done to fundamentally reshape the entire environment in which participants are trying to apply new tools and lessons.

However, we have seen companies reshape this environment.  Three elements to achieving it are critical.

1. Capitalizing On Immediate, Energizing Opportunities To Contribute

Imagine if, within a couple of days after participating in a leadership program, a middle manager is approached by a colleague and invited to be a part of a new project. The project taps into aspects of the business she is most excited about, has the direct support of a top executive, and enables her to make strong contributions with minimal demands on her time.

One large U.S. professional association engulfed its leadership development program participants in these kinds of opportunities. It deployed proactive invitations to help, multiple peer-driven projects for participants to choose from, and a drum-beat of communication that continuously fueled action. The consistent “pull” of energized colleagues, cross-organizational focus of the work, and executive exposure all directly evoked specific skills that participants just learned.

2. Reshaping The Environment And The Power Of Volunteerism

Or, imagine an organization context where a specialized team works over three months, supported by the 20 top executives, to build a groundswell of energy and urgency with 3,800 out of 7,000 employees.  This example is an Italian utility company that saw an opportunity to transform itself into an industry leader across Europe by leveraging thousands of its own leaders. These “volunteer” leaders at all levels created so much infectious engagement that numerous local action teams cropped up across regions and special projects received unprecedented contributions. One project, sparked organically by the transformation, engaged more than 100 volunteers to clean the company’s customer database, driving the success of a critical SAP conversion.

Imagine you are a middle manager in the context of a change leadership program that features this degree of connectedness to the business, and this level of momentum, contagious energy, and opportunity to take part in transformative projects with passionate teams of local colleagues. The experience feels utterly different to the developing leaders and delivers results that the business requires.

3. Modeling, Action, And Progress Of Peers

Finally, envision yourself working in a consumer products manufacturing facility where your colleagues have ignited a palpable sense of urgency to change critical aspects of the business. They are proactively enlisting co-workers to collaborate on making immediate improvements to the production line. Successes are mounting quickly. So is the energy and optimism: team members are capturing self-made videos of their efforts and sharing them between and among shifts and facilities.  Within a span of months, participants in change leadership programs are applying what they learned in an environment where they generated and communicated more than 1,000 short-term wins. Equipped with skills, direct experience applying them, and evidence of their impact, participants are ever-ready for change and consistently prompted to stretch their capacity as leaders.

Redefining On-The-Job

As many of us know—and as we have discussed throughout this three-part series—the high-impact integration of on-the-job learning (70%), social learning through coaching and mentoring (20%), and formal skill development programs (10%) is critical to leadership development success.  We have watched a range of organizations take the elusive but powerful 70% to the next level by changing the very nature of their on-the-job environments. An essential agent of the change is the deep integration of their leadership development programs with “real work” so that they can feel like they are one in the same.  Cultivating the kinds of vibrant organizational contexts described above can create a level of receptivity, infectious action, and proactive “pull” that fundamentally redefine on-the-job application of leadership development skills and insights.

By David Carder

Source: Forbes

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