In Developing Leaders: What Really Works?, Steve Mostyn began an enquiry into ‘what really works’ in leadership development.

What Really Works?

I agree with Steve, the question is under-researched and international good practice is hard to find. Like artists, leadership development specialists express their creative freedom without the constraint of professional standards. It lets brilliance emerge, while innovative practice goes unnoticed and un-captured, unless we are there to see it.

I’ve worked in leadership development at world class companies for over thirty years. I’ve known the pressure to deliver ‘what really works’ in global, multi-cultural organisations, for leaders at all levels and in many different sectors. Research-validated proof of what works is hard to produce as it’s impossible to isolate the effect of leadership development interventions from other factors influencing performance. But, qualitative feedback is abundant. Practitioners soon discover the clear opinion of the discerning and demanding leaders they serve.

What Stands Out?

Like others, I have a view of what really works. Of course, it’s biased. It leans toward my own angle of interest, which is more about design than content.

In my view, no matter how relevant or inspiring the content might be, it’s the methods of teaching and learning, including the intervention’s overall structure, that determine whether or not leadership development makes an impact.

So, in response to Steve’s question, here’s my view of ‘what really works’:

  • Define Leadership Before You Develop It
  • Work on Current, Real Business Issues
  • Learn in Leadership Teams
  • Improve Learning Ability and Collective Intelligence
  • Use Learning Methods that Work
  • Amplify Experiential Learning with Realism, Competition and Creativity
  • Have a Very Responsive Facilitator
  • Get Leaders More Involved in Developing Future Leaders

As the list reveals, I’m focusing on the effectiveness of leadership development interventions rather than the support provided by the company’s purpose, vision, strategy, culture and values, talent management, performance management etc. They make a big difference, but my interest is in the design and delivery of leadership development interventions, including features relating to the full ’70:20:10′.
Here’s what I mean…

1. Define Leadership Before You Develop It

It’s a no-brainer. I’m stating the obvious. Companies do define it. BUT… definitions of leadership are more often definitions of leadership capability, rather than leadership outcomes or results. Appetite for the latest form of leadership (agile, adaptive, collaborative, emergent, servant, customer-centred and so on) attract us to solutions that develop capability and obscure the greater need to ensure leadership outcomes improve.

In Using Talent Management to Create Value, Sandy Ogg emphasised how important it is that talent management accelerates value creation. So, too, with leadership development.

Effective leadership is about capability and results: ‘Leadership is the ability to engage and take others with you, creating value together that changes people’s lives for the better.’ Leadership development needs to be good at improving both.

The need for our interventions to build capability and improve results means the traditional focus on ‘deliver learning’ should lie within a more inclusive improvement process. For example: ‘envision opportunities and challenges’ + ‘deliver opportunity- and challenge-based learning’ + ‘innovate, apply, practice and improve in the job itself’ + ‘execute, sustain and create more value’.

Seeing the improvement process right through to performance, makes leadership development much more effective.

What Really Works? #1: Leadership development really works when it is designed to develop new leadership capability and deliver better leadership results.

2. Work on Current, Real Business Issues

Many companies do this. Working on real issues makes leadership development much more relevant, engaging, meaningful and productive. It increases executive sponsorship, ownership and participation. Done well, it really works.

To improve it, we could borrow more from OD, continuous improvement and project management.

In many leadership development interventions, faculty teams are chosen for their subject matter expertise. Programme directors ‘tie the threads together’. In this role, we draw on models, methods and tools from the world of organisation development to help participants reflect on, make sense of and consider how to apply their new knowledge to the real issues they face.

Expert speakers are captivating and inspiring. But their new ideas are rarely enough. To leave equipped with insights, decisions and improvement plans, leaders need to think through and apply new ideas in their own jobs and in their own lives.

Leadership development is more effective when subject matter experts, as well as programme directors, make time for participating leaders to address real issues and practice new skills, using conversation, decision-making and planning tools from OD, continuous improvement and project management.

What Really Works? #2: Leadership development really works when it facilitates inquiry, delivers knowledge, and co-creates solutions to real business issues by participants themselves.

3. Learn in Leadership Teams

In every field of human endeavour, when people need to perform together, they train together. Except in the corporate world.

With only a few exceptions, leadership development is treated as an individual need. While in practice, corporate leadership is a team performance.

Learning as a leadership team strengthens relationships and improves understanding; it develops collective intelligence and enables innovation. It improves the quick resolution of conflicting views. Teams that learn together build the trust and mutual accountability on which their joint role in leading a company depends. They develop and use their collective capability, solving problems together by sharing insights, experience and expertise, and by making better decisions, faster.

When leaders learn with their teams, the speed with which they move from insight to action, from idea to execution, improves radically. And the action-oriented learning climate they create, transfers more successfully to their ‘business as usual’.

None of these advantages are available to leaders who learn alone, as established practice would have them do. Learning alone actually creates drag and impedes the progress leadership teams need to make in driving their business forward.

What Really Works? #3: Leadership development really works when leaders learn in their leadership teams.

4. Improve Learning Ability and Collective Intelligence

Digital transformation is disrupting and changing human performance. Knowledge was once an individual asset. Now, it’s at everyone’s fingertips. Knowledge used to be power. Now, it’s the ability to learn and use the further advantage of collective intelligence.

Look at the evidence. The strongest indicator of the potential to succeed is the ability to learn (research behind Kornferry’s Learning Agility). And teams with high collective intelligence outperform teams with higher average individual IQs (Woolly & Malone, 2015). Surely, they should both rank highly in our list of development priorities?

What’s more, learning ability and collective intelligence are meta-cognitive capabilities. Improving them would help leaders do better in just about everything else.

Research at the University of Bristol, England, led to the discovery of learning power. I was a Research Fellow with the faculty team that found it. Its eight dimensions give us a language for learning that’s easy to reveal and natural to use in building the learning culture digital transformation requires. Unlike other models of learning, learning power does not assign a fixed preference or a type. Rather (as we know from lived experience), our ability to learn varies according the challenges we face and how inclined we are address them. Learning power has realism and authenticity.

More significantly, the research team found that anyone can improve their ability to learn, once they know what it means to them. So, if we can now improve the ability identified as the strongest indicator of the potential to succeed, why would we ever leave it out?

We can use learning power and collective intelligence to improve the design and delivery of leadership development. And in the digital era, they are both new capabilities corporate organisations can really use.

What Really Works? #4: Leadership development really works when it uses learning power and collective intelligence to improve the impact of learning design and the quality of human performance in a digital world. Understanding and improving learning ability is one of the ten skills that we believe organisations expect their leaders to possess to succeed in a digital age.

5. Use Learning Methods that Work

A revolution in the world of education turned attention from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’. In the world of work, leadership development pioneered learner-centred, experiential and enquiry-led learning methods. But its reach has a long way to go.

Academics and research-led consultants appear to be stuck in their need to teach, rather than adapt their style to the curiosity of self-motivated learners. Once they have imparted what they know and allowed time for a few questions, they appear to stop, rarely allocating enough time for the application and practice of their leadership ideas.

Leadership is a practical thing. By definition, leadership development calls for a relevant form of practice. The provision of thought leadership and subject matter expertise is a critical ingredient in developing leaders. But, if we want leaders to make sense of it, and use it well in a range of difficult situations, we must make more use of methods that equip, prepare and rehearse our leaders’ confidence and ability to do that.

What Really Works? #5: Leadership development really works when learning methods go beyond the provision of thought leadership to include learner-centred, experiential and enquiry-led methods that enable application, develop behaviour and improve leadership performance on the job.

6. Amplify Experiential Learning with Realism, Competition and Creativity

Face to face learning continues to be a unique opportunity for leaders to improve their self-awareness and behavioural skills. For this purpose, experiential learning activities, in which leaders discover insights and develop capability for themselves, work really well.

They work best when they simulate real work challenges, provoking the rehearsal of new and better leadership behaviour in a safe and supportive learning environment.

We are familiar with the advantages of, for example, role play, group problem-solving and business simulation. They work. But learning design can take this further and still remain relevant. Here are two examples:

News Night 2020. Use scenario planning with participants to generate vivid impressions of how the future of your industry and company could turn out. Invite teams to present alternative futures in the form of a TV Business Report ‘as if’ it had come true, in the year 2020. Invite participants to prepare a script for their TV broadcast, and play the part of ‘studio guests’ from competitor companies, as inventors, political figures, consumers etc. and of course, their own company. The goal of their ‘presentation’ is to make their scenario real and report how, through a series of strategic decisions, their company adapted to survive and prosper in a very different future. The creative, make-believe drama of a TV business report gives participants the freedom to elaborate and thereby, challenge assumptions about how the company could adapt and succeed in a very uncertain world.

Parliamentary Debate. Take a current, contentious and critical business issue. Collaboratively, develop and refine a motion e.g. ‘This house believes we are adapting quickly and effectively enough to deliver more value to society.’ Hold a secret ballot and keep the results private. Randomly assign leaders to For and Against debating teams. Allow time for teams to research and gather real evidence from within the business, prepare their argument and appoint speaking roles. Adapt the rules to require all team members to speak and use slides. Run the debate and hold a second secret ballot. Reveal pre- and post-debate voting to identify how opinion was influenced by the quality of evidence and argument. The rigour and theatre of a contested debate increases the intensity of research and tests participants’ powers of persuasion.

Both examples are fully immersive, involving participants in developing and presenting ideas and opinions of their own. Both use theatre to liberate and permit the discussion of both expected and irreverent ideas. And both address real issues in ways that open up the dialogue about how to improve things in the reflective discussions that follow. Inviting executive sponsors to listen and join that dialogue increases the potential for leadership development activities like these to shape better business decisions.

And finally, both examples leverage collaboration and competition, increasing individual and team determination to do well while also providing a rich source of feedback for self-reflection, self-awareness and interpersonal impact conversations.

Many more examples offer the same advantages.

What Really Works? #6: Leadership development really works when we use our imagination to amplify the impact of experiential learning activities with realism, competition and creativity.

7. Have a Very Responsive Facilitator

Senior leaders are demanding in the expectations of those who come forward as their leadership development facilitators.

In addition to presence, credibility and engagement, leaders need facilitators who respond ‘in the moment’ to emergent, unforeseen and surprising questions and lines of inquiry they need to pursue.

In executive coaching, expertise in enabling development by asking questions is well-established. In developing leadership with groups, facilitators who are at ease in their role as thought leader and as a socratic, outcome focused facilitator, are in shorter supply. But it is more often from unplanned dialogue that the best ideas emerge.

To live up to its promise, the leadership specialist has to catch up with the executive coach. The ability to ask naive, powerful and (sometimes) irreverent questions can do more to increase our clients’ insight, than many a prepared presentation of our own ideas, no matter how convinced we are of their truth.

What Really Works? #7: Leadership development really works when facilitators are credible experts and incredibly responsive facilitators.

8. Get Leaders More Involved in Developing Future Leaders

In training for my very first job, I was told, ‘…you are not taught this art (leadership), but absorb it from experience and learn from the example of others.’

Leadership is not something we learn on a course, but from our own experience and from the leaders around us, good and bad. We learn about leadership by seeing it and feeling it, or the lack of it, in action. Often, our most memorable lessons come from our own experience, and the sense we make of them.

Experienced leaders accumulate wisdom from which future leaders can also learn, especially within their own companies. As Steve said in his article triggering this enquiry, it was Noel Tichy who advocated the idea of ‘leaders teaching leaders’, making the serendipity of ‘learning from experience’ more intentional, and much more productive. We need more of that.

The added-value of leader-led development is broader than Tichy’s ‘teachable point of view’, however. Research by the Corporate Executive Board shows that leaders rated very effective in developing their teams achieve 25% higher performance than those who aren’t. Leader-led development, using the stretch of on-the-job responsibility and the support of coaching, creates access to the under-utilised 90% of ’70:20:10′.

Further, digital learning technologies make it possible to access knowledge and practical ‘how to’ guides, making self-directed, on-the-job learning easier still. And with the data this generates, senior leaders can track and support the development of the future leaders they coach.

As with the impact of digital in other work activities, leader-led development is more effective when it is enhanced by technologies that augment our human capacity to make it work.

We need more of this, too.

What Really Works? #8: Leadership development really works when it is in every leader’s role, with digitally augmented support, and a culture that sees corporate performance as a partnership in human achievement.

Where to Next?

It doesn’t stop.

As more work is automated, the corporate search for innovation, competitive advantage and value creation will look harder for the untapped potential of human capacity that current technologies cannot provide:

Imagination. Empathy. Collaborative and Collective Intelligence. Learning Power. Innovation. Compassion. Social Conscience. Meaningful Purpose. Value Creation. Speed.

But it’s easier to say what leaders need, than how to develop it.

That’s why Steve’s enquiry matters. The disruptive challenges companies face need leadership development that, as he puts it, ‘really works’.

The organisations that lead this next stage of human development, will be more able to create value for society. And that’s a purpose worth working for.

So, perhaps, by applying some of ‘what really works’ to ourselves, we might be in a better position collectively, to help them accelerate it?