Improving the Impact of Leadership Development

By: Daniel Russell

First of two-part series

More than ever before, organizations are deploying leadership assessment and development in the context of strategic talent management. Why? Because they are great ways to align human capital with business strategy.

Case study after case study shows that close collaboration between consultants and clients results in greater impact. One hallmark of RHR’s work is its ability to partner with clients to co-create programs focused on helping senior executives lead transformational change. McKinsey’s research and RHR’s experience continually highlight the need for radically different leadership-development programs that are:

  • Embedded in the context and strategy of the organization
  • Focused on the organizational journey (rather than a cohort)
  • Designed to ensure transfer of learning
  • Aligned with supporting processes and systems.

Based on RHR’s success in creating sustainable leader-development and transformational-change programs, there are practical ways to ensure you incorporate the above issues as you develop and implement similar programs within your organization. We’ve rounded up a few of our approaches here.

Tie them to strategy

Of course, it’s important to ensure that the content of any development or change program is relevant to the business context and clearly aligned with strategy. However, it’s also vital that leaders understand what behaviors need to be changed and how those changes are in service to the overall strategy. We’ve found that it’s important at the outset of any training to create a “healthy tension” within each leaders so that each understands what is lacking today, what needs to be changed in the future, and what positive outcomes will emerge if the change happens.

Make them contextually relevant

Research shows that adults learn best when new skills are taught in the context they will be used. This helps leaders see where the old ways of behaving are lacking and how new behaviors can be introduced naturally into day-to-day work with success. Practicing in a safe, realistic offsite setting builds executives’ confidence in the new behaviors before returning to work. Creating content that is closely tied to the business requires close collaboration with sales, marketing, operations, and other “frontline” functions. It also requires agility to refine content on the fly as business needs change—ensuring focus on the corporate journey.

Procure leadership participation

We have heard time and again that senior leaders’ support is important, but senior leader participation takes things to the next level. Often leadership support entails an email, memo, speech, talking points, or conference call from a senior leader. However, they excuse themselves informally from the change because “it really doesn’t apply to me.” Here, we are enlisting “leaders as teachers”—and asking them to truly participate in the program as facilitators and joint learners. By involving them in the process, they are more supportive, engaged, and desirous of ensuring success during and after the program.

Obtain external alignment

At the most basic level, it’s demoralizing for leaders to get back on the job only to learn that the organization’s systems and processes are barriers to behavioral change, leaders aren’t really aligned, and/or things just don’t so as smoothly in the “real world” as at the offsite. Alignment and transfer are greatly improved when consultants co-create programs with clients. Having a deep understanding and appreciation for the context improves the likelihood that misaligned systems are identified and addressed as a part of skill-building and practice exercises. Employing leaders as teachers increases support and accountability. While alignment with external systems and processes is natural, getting the details right is key. It’s difficult yet important to ensure that vocabulary is clear and consistent, goals and rewards are aligned, and processes are complementary. Even then, our recommended leading practice is to work through a real-case example with each leader before he or she leaves the offsite and to provide peer coaching afterwards.

The best leadership-development programs are interwoven with transformational change and clearly highlight how leadership needs to change within the context of emerging business strategy. Likewise, the best transformational-change programs focus on leadership development—helping leaders to guide and model the changes required in the business. Trying to do one without addressing the other typically yields only short-term effectiveness. Incorporating the ideas presented here increases your chances at distinctive and sustainable impact for leadership and change initiatives.

Dan Russell recently presented at the Society for Consulting Psychology in a session entitled, “With a Little Help from My Friends: How Strategic Collaboration Among Consultants Improves the Impact of Leadership Development Programs.”


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