Organizations with high levels of leadership quality and leader engagement/ retention were nine times more likely to outperform their peers financially as highlighted in DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast (GLF) 2014/15 research results. These links point to the future impact talent management and leadership development practices can have on financial success. So how do we turn this insight into action?
Leadership development, though closely tied to leader quality, is not its sole driver. Strong leadership selection and succession management systems also play major roles in driving leader quality. Why is leader quality going nowhere fast? This is because leadership development efforts have stalled despite the fact that it is estimated that some $50 billion a year is being spent on developing leaders worldwide. As in the last two GLF forecasts, only 37 per cent of leaders in the current study rated their organization’s leadership development program as effective, indicating no improvement over the past seven years. Hence, it’s no wonder that we aren’t seeing a vast difference in overall leader quality.
As you build pipeline capability, it is important for organizations to design development programs around the skills leaders need to succeed. Targeting development to stages of leadership doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Certain skills tend to grow more quickly at certain times such as when the topic matches the learner’s experience and opportunity. When building a leadership development sequence, consider the timing along with the content to capitalize on natural growth trajectories for leaders. Avoid missing out on high-growth opportunities for frontline and mid-level leaders. For many skills, growth rates are lower for higher- and senior-level leaders. If foundations aren’t established early, future skill development will be limited. When development time is short and investment is limited, missing the opportunity to grow a leader when skill enhancement is most likely to stick (such as coaching and developing others at the frontline level) can be a costly omission. Consider staggering development, focusing first on skills with growth rates that are more foundational or unique to that level of leader, and placing skills that are less so later in a leader’s career. See Figure below:
A focus on developing future talent begins therefore at the front line, with sustainable learning experiences that extend leaders’ growth and development on the job beyond formal learning. Development efforts won’t have a lasting impact unless they are followed by opportunities for leaders to practice and use their newly acquired skills.
Organizations that report their leaders practice and then receive feedback on key skills with their managers are five times more likely to have high leader quality and bench strength compared to those that don’t. Managers of learners, by connecting learning to job and business needs and by reinforcing it after it occurs, are key to converting learning to behavior change. Hold them accountable for doing so.
The factor most likely to hold leaders back from stronger development resulting from on-the-job learning—that is, poor post-learning feedback from one’s manager—is however rarely a barrier in formal learning. The top two barriers to formal learning—low relevance to the job and to business challenges— typically are strengths for on-the-job learning.
For formal learning, stay vigilant for how changes in organizational strategy should dictate changes in the learning’s focus and how it’s positioned to leaders. Don’t assume leaders will spot relevance automatically. Clarify these links with both the learner and his or her manager and quickly rectify any lack of perceived relevance. This foundation enables job experiences to be easily converted into sustained, well-supported behavior change.
Effective learning thus requires someone (a “master blender”) who can put together the right combination of learning activities to meet the needs of both learners and the business. Over-reliance on ratios (such as 70:20:10) emphasizes the separation of learning methods rather than their integration. Allowing learning methods to compete rather than integrating them so they can build on one another undermines their impact and their value. Stop viewing—and allowing leaders to view—on-the-job and formal learning as distinct events. See them as counterparts in an integrated learning journey, using formal learning to build structure, planning, and reinforcement around on-the-job learning to better convert informal learning experiences into sustained changes in leader behavior.