The organisational context needs to be right for learning and growth
As a passionate proponent of all things Leadership Development, I was drawn to an article in Harvard Business Review’s October ‘16 edition, entitled ‘Why leadership training fails – and what to do about it’.
It’s my own experience, and long held belief that there are four key elements that need to be in place before any leadership development activity can truly work:
- The leader has a desire to learn and grow, and the timing is right
- The leader has some self-awareness and is motivated to improve their emotional intelligence
- Supportive mentors and managers provide the right playground for development to be a positive learning experience
- The organisation creates the space and opportunity to experiment and grow
So, when the articles’ authors Michael Beer et al, proposed that “no matter how smart and motivated they (leaders) are” unless you have “a favourable context for learning and growth” brought about by “senior executives attending to organisational design”, my attention was turned to much broader and more wide ranging considerations.
More than that…” if the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behaviour change – indeed it will set it up to fail”.
They go on to say that organisations will continue to put millions of pounds, time and energy into leadership development, only to find when leaders try to embed the behaviour change that they are now so committed to, they simply hit brick walls, barriers and infertile ground: a somewhat depressing thought for so early in this new year.
As an HR business Partner earlier in my career, I am familiar with the need to align learning, training and development with organisation strategy and goals: to identify the right set of competencies to develop in the people who can deliver the strategy and make change happen.
The organisation as a ‘system’
And yet, I was reminded by the article that organisations are systems of interacting elements, including, but not limited to roles, responsibilities, relationships, organisation structures, processes, styles, cultures, back grounds – the list goes on. It’s an amalgamation of all these elements that drive organisation performance and behaviour, not just, and only, the leadership community.
In their research, the authors found that CEO’s and their leadership teams needed to be confronted with uncomfortable truths more frequently, in order that they can free up the organisation and its leaders to take it where they want it to go. One CEO insisted on taking a step back before approving a programme of leader development. When managers were asked to say what barriers they experienced, it wasn’t a lack of training that was the issue, some old favourites emerged…
- The senior team didn’t have a clear and articulated strategy with corporate values
- Well-structured talent and development planning discussions were infrequent
- Talent hoarding restricted movement and created higher turnover
I noted that in the end, once the systemic changes happen then this encourages – even requires – the desired behaviours that leaders embrace in leadership development programmes.
So, what can you do about it?
The authors identified six basic steps to real talent development and these are summarised here:
- The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction
- Identification of barriers to learning and strategy execution: this may result in the redesign of roles, responsibilities and relationships.
- Day to day coaching and process consultation to help improve effectiveness in this new ‘system’
- Training and development activity is embedded where needed
- New metrics for individual and organisational performance are developed.
- Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain changes in organisational behaviour.
And so, what I loved about this article was that it reminded me of the importance of the ‘system’ in leader development and organisation growth. To ignore the system runs the risk of the huge investments made in leadership development, simply not paying off.
What this means for me as a proponent of managerial, leadership and organisation development is an increased focus on diagnosing the systemic barriers to individual growth and organisational development: for these to be worked on at least in parallel to leader development, if not earlier than that.
Only in this way will leadership development efforts have a real chance of success and, thereby, make organisations unstoppable in what they can achieve!
HBR article authors:
Michael Beer is the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School and a cofounder of TruePoint Partners, a research and consulting firm specialising in organisational transformation. Magnus Finnstrom and Derek Schrader are directors and TruePoint.