Who will (and won’t) benefit from a leadership development program?

Who will (and won’t) benefit from a leadership development program?

men & women walking forward

Are you putting your entire leadership team through your Leadership Development Program? It’s a common practice. However you may want to consider a different approach, because this is not the most powerful use of your leadership development budget. And it could be undermining the effectiveness of your program.

Leadership development programs are not a panacea. Some people benefit, and change, enormously. Others can finish the program in exactly the same shape as they started it. As the owner of the leadership development portfolio, how do you know who will be a good investment of development dollars?

Three types of participants

There tend to be three types of participants in learning forums: Volunteers, Vacationers, and Conscripts. Volunteers are there because they want to be; they genuinely want to learn. Vacationers are there because it sounds like fun and they don’t want to miss out on an experience with their peers. Conscripts are there because they have to be – either they’ve been asked (or told) to participate by someone senior, or they’ve decided that not participating will make them look bad.

Leaders who are a good investment, value growth more than comfort.

Personal change is uncomfortable. If your leadership development program doesn’t cause discomfort, it’s not doing its job. Leaders who are a good investment, value growth more than comfort. Vacationers will usually participate enthusiastically….until it starts to get uncomfortable, at which point they pull back to surface participation. They’ll go through the motions, but keep it light and shallow. Conscripts tend to participate either minimally, or disruptively. Neither of these is helpful to the culture and learning of the group.

A consistent message

To get the best bang for your leadership buck, you need to start the process well before Day 1 of any program. There needs to be serious and deep commitment from the top, including a willingness to performance manage leaders who are not willing to lead well. There needs to be clear and frequent communication that good leadership is prized, and this needs to be mirrored in KPIs and the reward system.

Leaders who are good at ‘hitting the numbers’ but who burn people along the way are especially important. If they choose not to participate, and are allowed to continue neglecting their leadership skills, the message you broadcast is that leadership is important unless you hit your numbers, in which case, it’s optional.

Invariably, this type of leader is leaving a trail of destruction as they poach customers from others’ territories, build a culture of fear and favouritism that fails to develop anyone outside of their ‘in-group’, or contribute nothing to the organisation more broadly while their peers do all the heavy lifting. These people have a disproportionate impact on the credibility of the message that leadership is important. If leadership is truly important, they need to be either brought along, shifted from the leadership team, or managed out. It takes courage to do this, but it sends a very powerful message one way or the other, about the conviction you have to good leadership.

Populating your program

In the lead-up to a leadership program commencing, ideally participants are invited (not instructed) to participate. If leaders decline, that needs to be discussed. There may be a good reason they can’t join in at that time. Or they may feel that they don’t need it. If that belief is justified, it is worth influencing them to participate as a good role model for their peers, and also to be part of the new culture that will form. A good leader will know the value of good role models and team culture. They shouldn’t take too much convincing.

Leadership development programs should not be used as a performance management tool.

If the leader’s self-belief is misguided, that needs to be addressed by their manager before the program starts. To include a leader like this, is to allow a Conscript onto the program. Their agenda will be sabotage, either overt or covert. Leadership development programs should not be used as a performance management tool. That’s a job for the senior leaders in the organisation.

Once invitees have accepted the invitation to the program, one-on-one meetings should occur between the Facilitator and the potential participants. These serve two functions: to establish a trusting relationship between them, and to assess together, whether the invitee is indeed likely to benefit from the program. A good Facilitator will be able to ascertain this and discuss it openly with the invitee. At this point, some leaders may withdraw. This should then be discussed with their manager and addressed if necessary. Other leaders may insist that they want to participate, despite showing all the signs of a Vacationer or Conscript. It’s vitally important that the Facilitator be given the final decision on whether these leaders participate. This conversation, and the possible exclusion from the program, can sometimes be the beginning of an over-confident leader’s developmental journey.

Participant Suitability

Allowing a Vacationer or Conscript to participate in a meaningful leadership program is worse than a waste of money. It will diminish the learning for everyone else. While excluding these people may mean that those who need it most, don’t participate, this then highlights a challenge that needs to be addressed: what to do with leaders who need improvement but aren’t willing to do the work to improve. This often goes one of four ways:

  1. They are allowed to continue as they are, and this undermines the message about the importance of good leadership.
  2. Their disinterest is discussed with senior leaders, which brings about a genuine change of heart, and they decide to willingly participate in a future program.
  3. The culture of the leadership team begins to change around them, including other leaders ‘calling them’ on problematic behaviours. They slowly open to the different culture in which they find themselves and decide they want to participate. This outcome is less likely if the organisation is turning a blind eye to poor leadership.
  4. They are managed out of a leadership role.

This is why there needs to be deep commitment from the top. It requires a well planned approach, the committed involvement of senior leaders, and integration with other processes. The good news is, it results in real behavioural and cultural change. It also results in people lining up to participate in your leadership program.

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