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Emma Mitchell


Leadership and Management Development Director

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HR and leadership design for the modern workplace


Leadership is the most important factor influencing organisational performance and effectiveness. And yet a Fortune survey found that only 7%  of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, with just 10% saying that their leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact.

Leadership programmes would be easy to design if leadership were a single, defined skillset or competency, that could applied in all circumstances and situations. However, leadership is a multi-faceted skill, and opinions as to what constitutes good leadership vary dramatically. In addition, the style of leadership that will work best varies depending on the organisation, the environment, and the marketplace.

Apart from anything else the command and control culture, once prominent in the workplace, has been replaced by models which are predicated on collaborative and participative approaches. We see effective leaders as those who encourage staff engagement by allowing autonomy within a framework of values and goals focussed on meeting strategic objectives.

These leaders manage and improve performance rather than just reporting it – a “cultivate and grow” approach rather than management by carrot and stick.

Growth and competitiveness rely on investment in leadership talent but we know that a lot of time, money and effort is expended on leadership programmes with highly variable rates of success. So as times change, we need leaders who can change too, we need leaders who embrace continuous learning, who develop and adjust their behaviour and working style as appropriate.

The CIPD points out that it’s “important to adapt the approach to developing leaders to fit the current needs of an organisation, as well as invest in environments that enable leaders to be effective.”

Unite and evolve

HRDs have the unenviable task of working with their chairman and board to identify the leadership needs of the organisation to ensure succession planning and talent pipeline requirements are met. Getting this right is essential for an organisation to grow effectively and especially relevant where the organisation is seeking to enhance leadership team ‘edge’ and harness the collective power of an aligned and engaged leadership team.

In successful leadership initiatives, the board and senior management must unite to build a shared commitment to transforming leadership through the development of skills and strategies which participants are able to apply in tackling complex challenges. Good development design requires an approach that is tailored to respond to issues as they emerge, evolving as challenges are tackled and aligned with organisational DNA and corporate culture.

We see effective leaders as those who encourage staff engagement by allowing autonomy within a framework of values and goals focussed on meeting strategic objectives.

Agreeing this shared commitment can be a difficult first step, the board may not have a vision of what the organisation really needs its leaders to say and do that aligns with what the HR department and the workforce expect or need. Complex problems may be difficult to articulate and sometimes the issues that seem most immediate can disguise underlying problems.

The HRD will have a real-time understanding of the workforce, their values and engagement, and be able to collate information to gauge the complexity of the situation in respect of the real needs of the business, with a focus on a whole organisation or system approach. HR are also uniquely good at horizon-scanning in respect of issues and development that impact on workforce planning; all senior managers will say that our people are our greatest asset but it is HR who will plan for the changing work environment.

Relationship building is second nature to HR practitioners and a good HRD is highly skilled in partnering with stakeholders to explore issues and understand the human dynamics that underpin them. They can articulate frameworks, processes and tools for interventions that enable the organisation to plan for and implement change.

Seeing the whole picture

HR talk to employees and they also talk to leadership and, sometimes, the situation as it is seen at board level is not the full story. The people doing the job are often those who best understand the issues and the organisational culture surrounding them. HR can facilitate organisation-wide understanding and development initiatives.

At the end of the day, change sticks when it becomes embedded in “the way we do things around here,” when it becomes part of corporate culture and is rolled into social norms and shared values.

Leadership interventions work best when designed in the context of a broader organisational development strategy with a tailored, hands-on practical approach that is about a lot more than management theory.

Good initiatives are interactive and incorporate real-life situations with opportunities for leaders to explore strategies and problem-solving as part of their personal development.

The focus on context and culture means that people are much more able to engage because it means something to them.

This buy-in from participants, rather than top-down direction, is what makes a leadership programme successful. The greatest challenge in leadership development is getting managers to change their behaviour.

Those managers will benefit from a development initiative if it aligns with their needs and values and if they believe it will help them cope with the challenges of leading in a modern, open and democratic organisation.

Good leadership development fosters a culture where:

  • the leadership team builds trust, respect, and engagement throughout the organisation;
  • enables the leadership team to develop a vision of what they want to become;
  • builds a learning culture where people expand their collective thinking and learn together;
  • encourages reflective learning and “leadership by doing.”

Customised programmes tailored to an organisation’s needs require HR to start with robust data analysis before moving to planning any training or development initiative. Key to success, though is individual commitment to development.

Leadership interventions work best when designed in the context of a broader organisational development strategy with a tailored, hands-on practical approach

The leaders using the programme need one to one coaching on a regular basis after the start of the initiative and occasional group coaching and feedback sessions will help the leadership team identify what works and where there is room for improvement.

Work on what really works

We think that regular debriefing and feedback make a real difference. Allow the group to help shape the programme, as each leader has different needs, but the building of a shared language and using the opportunity to co-coach and provide support for each other will pay dividends in the long run.

The aim should be to develop people who are reflective learners, who are able to facilitate the ideas of staff and other stakeholders; to be the kind of leader who creates an environment where employees deliver their best.

The leadership skills necessary for success in strategic management provide learners with greater self-awareness, engagement and influencing skills to leverage in their role as credible leaders.

So a programme might focus on the ability to appreciate and capitalise on strengths of self and others and strategies for working and communicating with other styles.

An organisation that wants to build leadership skills needs to start with a strong foundation of shared values.

Senior management and HR should begin the process by endeavouring to understand the purpose and values espoused by all stakeholders and aim to build commitment, alignment, engagement and accountability via the interaction between leadership and workforce.

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Emma Mitchell

Leadership and Management Development Director

Read more from Emma Mitchell