I have spent the last 10 years in and out of organizations across many different sectors. I have been everywhere from Red Dog, Alaska to Santiago, Chile as well as several places in between. In that time, I have observed, shadowed, interviewed and listened to 100’s of supervisors, managers and executive leaders. The focus of conversations has often turned to exploring what makes for good leadership. When we think of the leaders we need, what is it that they are good at? What are the factors that determine their success? How should we go about developing the leaders we need?
The training may be doing a good job of surfacing the issues, but it may be failing to develop a critical element in the participants: the confidence to play a head taller.
The need to develop leadership is particularly important at a time when industries are reporting a chronic shortage of suitably experienced supervisors and managers. Many companies have invested heavily in traditional management and leadership training programs. There is a frustration that these programs are somehow not delivering the intended results. All these programs provide a multitude of intuitive tools, techniques and practice – they are big on the “how” and the skills needed. Yet the lack of success is sometimes attributed to the fact that these programs are often generic; not as industry or organizationally specific as they need to be. Training activities may fail to resonate or address the specific demands of a particular organization… the push-back being that no amount of roleplaying tough conversations with a dissatisfied customer will prepare a foreman for dealing with a 20-year veteran of a trade who refuses to wear his safety equipment. But lack of specificity alone does not explain why these programs fail to address the familiar issues of fostering collaboration, having tough conversations, acting on the bigger picture and working effectively across organizational boundaries.
The key design question should not be about how we embed knowledge and understanding of leadership skills – it should be how we design a program that accelerates leadership confidence.
So why do we hear time and time again that these programs somehow miss the mark or don’t really bring about the desired shift in behavior? I suspect that the answer to improving these programs is not just about getting a better understanding of industry-specific challenges. The training may be doing a good job of surfacing the issues, teaching strategies and providing tools – but it may be failing to develop a critical element in the participants: the confidence to play a head taller. In fact, where I have seen managers who were effective even without a particularly good understanding of management technique, they all exhibited this ‘confidence to lead.’ The key word here is confidence. Typically, in early stages of development, this confidence seemed to come from having done the job themselves – ‘I can manage you because I know about what I am asking you to do.’ A manager’s credibility comes from knowing the answers because they have likely seen it before. Over time, a different, more robust confidence emerges from the hard knocks of the leadership experience itself, and they may develop an ability to be effective leaders across a broader range of operational areas. Better managers develop more leadership qualities, which might include an ability to see potential in the business or their people, and develop an approach that empowers and unlocks that potential. The problem for many industries is that this typically is a 10 to 15-year journey, and many organizations don’t have the luxury of time this takes. We need the leaders now!
As I write this I can’t help but reflect. There are clearly some specific capabilities that we would want see developed through any leadership or management training. BUT, if we want to see these capabilities show up in the workplace, we need to seek out a development program that builds leaders with the confidence they need to lead. The key design question should not be about how we embed knowledge and understanding of leadership or management skills – it should be how we design a program that accelerates the development of leadership confidence. Programs designed in this way will likely place more emphasis on pushing participants out of their comfort zone and have a focus on practice in the workplace. They would be predicated on a model of learning by doing, rather than simply understanding what to do.
I am mindful of not simply tooting The Refinery horn here, but clearly this aspect is something that differentiates many of the programs we are running for organizations right now. I believe it speaks to the importance of a programmatic delivery model, not just a number of coordinated development events. It speaks to not just teaching skills, but changing attitudes and mindsets. AND an intention that the goalposts for a program are firmly placed in the workplace – in enabling work-based practice, rather than hotel-based fun and games.
The challenge for all of us in the business of developing leaders becomes one of: how do we continue to raise the bar on the effectiveness of these programs and possibly be even more explicit about developing leadership confidence as an objective?
What experience do you have of programs that have developed leadership confidence?