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Joanna Knight

Berkshire Consultancy


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Is leadership development actually meeting the challenges faced by today’s leaders?


The Issue

The nature and scale of the challenges currently facing leaders is captured in a recent survey, The Management Agenda 2013 by Roffey Park Management Institute, based on responses from 1460 managers. This shows that 20 percent rate the leadership in their organisation as poor, while 25 percent also report that culture change initiatives fail and that leaders are not effective in managing change. All this indicates a developmental gap for leaders. Furthermore, the report shows that people want leaders who are authentic (trust becomes particularly important in times of uncertainty and insecurity), adaptable and who provide clear direction.

My own experience as a consultant bears this out. A client organisation is undergoing significant restructuring and change which will require 70 percent of staff to change roles and ways of working or take redundancy. These people know that complete clarity about the future will not be available for some time, but they want their leaders to be as open as possible and to support them in preparing for change despite continuing uncertainties.

Additionally, Roffey’s Engagement Research (2010 & 2012) identified five attributes – supporting and empowering people, demonstrating empathy and fairness, consulting and informing people, developing people and improving their performance and recognising and rewarding people – which leaders see as a particular challenge in today’s financially constrained environment.

Beyond all this, leaders are responsible for setting and/or implementing an agenda of delivering more with less, while their employees have high expectations and requirements of them in terms of engagement and motivation. All this represents a tough challenge for leaders at personal, team and organisational levels at a time when they are also being directly affected by economic constraints and individual uncertainties.

The Implications for Leadership Development

So, given the nature and size of the challenges facing today’s leaders, is leadership development provision keeping pace so it’s relevant? Or is it falling behind and failing leaders when they have most need of its support? What does relevant, practical and impactful leadership development look like? How will leaders feel confident that precious time away from the workplace will be time well spent? How do businesses know that they will get real return on their investment in leadership development, at a time when all expenditure is under scrutiny?

Initial assessment of the Management Agenda findings suggests that there is plenty of room for improvement! From my experience, there are several clear challenges to be addressed.

Firstly, while an emphasis on budget control is very understandable and necessary, over- emphasis on costs can get in the way of good leadership development. As a consultant, I often see evaluation criteria used to assess bids where cost is the predominant factor in the decision-making process, meaning that quality and strong outcomes are passed over in favour of low cost options. However, we all know from personal experience that buying something on cost alone can lead to more expense being incurred down the line when the initial purchase has proved ineffective.

Clients are also understandably looking for short developmental inputs such as half day workshops, lunchtime sessions etc. Again, while short inputs can be effective as part of a blended learning programme, sometimes the emphasis seems to be on ensuring that the intervention is brief and not disruptive rather than effective. For example, a long-standing client has reduced one of their senior leadership programmes from three days to one day to reduce time away from the business. However, the participants (commercially savvy senior leaders) report that this leaves insufficient time for unpacking their learning in order to create true individual behavioural change.

This drive to short inputs is entirely understandable in the current context. However, common sense tells us that there is a limit to how effective and impactful leadership development can be when cost and time are the priority selection criteria. Lastly, unless good attention is paid to how leadership development interventions will be assessed for tangible impact, then it will be easy for less scrupulous practitioners to promise the moon – after all, they won’t have to deliver on this for some time!

Meeting These Challenges

While these are significant challenges, there are practical steps that can be taken to address them.

  • Clear focus: on the most important issues/target audiences and doing these well, rather than spreading resources too thinly and ineffectively. What’s key will be contextual, relating to your business sector, geographical spread, strategy, opportunities and issues.
  • Blended learning: use online and e-learning to present background knowledge and core concepts so that important behavioural and attitudinal work which needs practice, experimentation, feedback and skilled facilitation can be focused on in valuable face-to-face time.
  • Facilitator skill: to capture interest and provide real value when leaders have many competing demands on their time requires a high degree of facilitator expertise which enables development to be flexed ‘in the moment’ in response to emerging individual/group needs and changing business scenarios. For example, we have worked with leaders who have just heard about a radical change and who need time to assimilate this before progressing to the expected programme content. The ability to truly engage, inspire, challenge and add value requires a high level of facilitator skill.
  • Create strong links to the business: projects, placements and practical challenges which benefit both individual leaders and their businesses all help ensure that leaders experience development as relevant and that organisations derive tangible return on their investment. My consultancy has worked with both private and public sector organisations to achieve this and it has made a significant difference to leader engagement with development.
  • Assess the impact: HR/L&D functions must focus attention here in order to reinforce their credibility and make the business case for investment. We have identified ways in which leaders/learners can engage in this challenge so evaluation is relevant, adds value and isn’t a drain on L&D resources.
  • Engage line managers: this raises the priority assigned to development as top leaders feel their agenda and requirements regarding their direct reports are being attended to and met.
  • Coaching: can enable leaders to recognise what they need to change and how best to effect that change. Telephone/Skype coaching that complements leadership development programmes is cost and time effective and leads to greater impact and benefits for individuals.
  • Working in partnership: sharing this challenge between leaders, HR/L&D professionals and external consultants and openly discussing difficulties/constraints will enable the most effective ways forward to be identified.

In Conclusion

At worst, economic constraints lead to development which ticks boxes but doesn’t deliver sustainable change and performance improvement. At best, the current economic climate and its challenges will result in HR/L&D professionals who think carefully and creatively about what’s required and how leaders can best be developed. The constraints can lead to significant innovation.

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Joanna Knight


Read more from Joanna Knight

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