There is no Easy, Fix-All Solution to Leadership Development
Recently during a meeting with a CEO, I was asked the proverbial question about the “simple fix” their company should use to develop leaders. In other words, the CEO wanted THE answer to developing leaders quickly and with a high return on investment.
I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count in my career—and it can be tempting to offer a specific program or service as the best approach or answer. But managing expectations around investment and payoff can be tricky. There is no easy button!
There is No One Answer, (or Magic Fix) to Leadership Development
I was recently reminded of a book that Jim Kouzes, author of The Leadership Challenge, first introduced to me called: You Learn by Living. Published in 1960 and written by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose résumé includes delegate to the United Nations, chair of the Human Rights Commission, and First Lady.
One quote from this book reads:
“When one attempts to set down in bald words any answers one has found to life’s problems, there is a great risk of appearing to think that one’s answer is either the only one or the best one. This, of course, would be nonsense. I have no such all-inclusive wisdom to offer, only a few guideposts that have proved helpful to me in the course of a long life. Perhaps they may steer someone away from the pitfalls into which I stumbled or help them to avoid the mistakes I have made. Or perhaps one can learn only by one’s own mistakes. The essential thing is to learn.”
When I first read this, "the essential thing is to learn," was what resonated most with me—but more recently I’ve been drawn to the first part of Eleanor’s words: the notion that giving advice or sharing answers to life’s problems puts us at risk of perpetuating the nonsense that there is only one best answer to each problem.
Back to the proverbial magic fix question, I did stop short of telling the CEO their request was nonsense, but Eleanor’s words about avoiding the pitfall of there being only one right answer to a problem ran through my head.
At FlashPoint, we attempt to steer clear of this pitfall by encouraging an important mindset around leadership development. We’d like organizations to think differently about leadership development and to move:
From programmatic, event-based thinking - TO journey or experience-based approaches
From sporadic, budget-cycle-driven mindsets - TO a sustained, long-term investment over time
From training on hot topics or burning issues - TO what matters most given the disruptions that most businesses are facing today
Given this context, the application of Eleanor’s wisdom has a couple of meanings for us as leadership development practitioners:
First, we need to be authentic and direct with our business and executive stakeholders
Leadership development is hard work. It takes intention, commitment, risk, vulnerability, and a long-term mindset focused on deepening relationships. That can’t happen through a single learning intervention alone. It can be quite challenging to influence our stakeholders toward this new mindset, especially when they are working so hard to meet ever-increasing expectations and results.
To this end, we’ve found the following questions helpful to prompt new thinking about how the organization can best leverage leadership development offerings:
- What approaches can you use to get even better results from your programs?
- Is the format, modality, timing, and length of your program still right, right now? Is the balance between group/level cohorts balanced by personalized/individual needs?
- How has our workforce changed? Any hybrid or remote changes? Reorganizations? Acquisitions? What is the impact of these changes on your leadership programs?
- How can you meet the growing hunger and demand for more leadership development offerings? Are there different funding models to contemplate?
- What leadership capabilities are most critical right now? Given how much has changed, have you recently assessed leadership needs and gaps?
- What methods can you introduce to ensure learning is sustained and applied? How do you increase the relevance of our programs to business leaders? Are you closely connected to what they need?
- How will we promote the impact of our programs to ensure continuous investment?
Second, with the ground constantly shifting under our feet, we need to better understand the evolving future of Leadership Development.
In our own research at FlashPoint, we believe there are additional more nuanced (harder to develop, more layered) skills that leaders need to develop to succeed. For example, curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, and more. And, as leadership development specialists, we need to be creative in how we go about developing these skills in our leaders.
It’s not about throwing out the leadership playbook. We are working, alongside our client partners, to innovate new programs in the future, but rapidly enough to meet the numerous needs across organizations that leaders are facing right now. By being open and curious, instead of proscriptive, we can find out what the organization wants to see improved, how they define the barriers, what their vision is for the next year, and so on.
As practitioners in leadership development, we have an incredible opportunity to co-create the plan for how business leaders and other stakeholders can get better outcomes. We can drive deeper partnerships with the business to ensure relevancy and alignment. It is an iterative process.
While the path toward building leadership capability with high returns has its challenges—commitment can waver, the short-term gain can win out over the long-term interest, and fear can overcome our willingness to take risks—our job as leadership development practitioners is to make the journey feel as effortless as possible. We can be the humble, curious, and strategic guide who partners with the business to keep making improvements to how we develop leaders at the organization.
In keeping with the spirit of our First Lady’s words, I know these ideas are not the only method, but I hope you find these guideposts helpful in thinking about how to address the "magic solution" question with your stakeholders.