Developing Leaders

Organisations that fail to develop leaders will not only suffer in the short term but see high-potential talented people — a resource already in short supply — move on.

Peter Thomas

Peter Thomas

Professor Peter Thomas is COO of the Leasing Foundation, Director the Manifesto Group and Creative Director of Medicine Unboxed.
Peter Thomas

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Introduction from Executive Producer JO DAVIS
New approaches are required to deliver real value to today’s learners in fast-changing industries like asset finance. As an industry, we should expect, and need, nothing but the best possible education and training delivered partnership with those companies and people who need learning and development for their success. While an organisation’s future success depends on identifying and developing the next generation of  leaders, few organisations say that they are being effective in their leadership development efforts. Peter Thomas, COO of the Leading Foundation and one of the advisers on the Future Leaders programme, explores some of the issues.

Who should be interested in this?
Anyone concerned with leadership training and development.


Developing Leaders

For years, companies have lavished time and money on developing new leaders. In the US, companies spend $14 billion each year on leadership development. Universities offer hundreds of degree courses on leadership. The are as many commercial training courses.

When executives are asked to rank their top three HR priorities, leadership development is always comes out top. But when the same executives are asked about whether they in fact develop leaders effectively, few think that their companies are successful.

As organisations face the challenges of globalization, disruptive technological change and economic uncertainty developing future leaders is, and must be, a priority.

The Leasing Foundation has created the Future Leaders programme to help companies in leasing and asset finance develop their leadership capabilities. But while so many leadership programmes are bound by traditional models that emphasise  skills that belong to the last generation of leaders, Future Leaders is trying to focus on developing a new suite competencies that will be needed by the next generation of leaders.

We know that context is critical to successful leadership. An effective leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. So many training programmes are based on a one -size fits all solution – that there is a set skills or style of leadership that works in every situation. The experience of most organisations would demonstrate conclusively that this is not true.

Leadership in context means equipping leaders with the small number of competencies that will make a significant difference to performance, and then allowing them to explore issues in their own industry and organisational context. That’s why in the Future Leaders programme we have been emphasising that, for example, the ability to persuade and motivate outside a direct line of management is huge factor in successful leadership. The art of influencing is critical, and being exposed to many different models of influence is essential. The Future Leaders Crucible activity – where senior leaders join the participants in frank and open discussion – allows the future leaders to see the mechanics of influence in an authentic context with real people.

We have also realised that traditional curriculum-driven leadership programmes do not work. While off-site programmes offer participants time to step back and escape the pressing demands of the day job, research tells us that people typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in traditional training programs. And the demands of modern work mean that no matter how talented the up and coming leader, even the most well-designed off-site training is hard to translate into changes in behaviour.

As we have learned in Future Leaders, leadership development happens best when external challenge and on the job application are blended. Tying theory and reflection into on-the-job projects that have a business impact will improve learning dramatically. The activities we have developed in the Future Leaders programme offer opportunities to reflect while also anchoring these into real work experiences. In an industry where there is considerable uncertaintly and the pace of change is fast, developing leadership potential must balance, and recognise the difference between  ‘must do' projects and leadership development opportunities.

As all leadership development acknowledges, learning to be a leader means changing behaviour. Often companies create the leaders they do because of the mindset of the organisation. Many leadership development programmes find it hard to really examine inhibiting mindsets and root causes, and struggle with challenging them, because to do so would critique the organisation. This can be difficult, but if future leaders are going to drive change, it is essential. Leadership training should be uncomfortable and challenging, and those who are being groomed as leaders should feel discomfort as they move towards new levels of performance. This is a balancing act: changing behaviour requires analysing what drives an individual – their assumptions, biases, and beliefs – but in the context of work, rather than as a form of therapy. The Foundation’s programme encourages reflection in the context of both the individual – through coaching – and in the collective context, through action learning, where people share their challenges and their approaches to them.

The reason why any training or development programme exists is to drive improvement and change. Any training initiative will not be credible if that change is not measured and demonstrates a return on investment. But often, the way change is measured is through the immediate mechanism of participant feedback. The danger is that those who develop and run programmes will deliver programs that maximise good feedback and downplay the challenging experiences that may not be comfortable and do not deliver positive feedback. The real challenge is to expand horizons and measure impact over the long term by tying leadership development authentically into the leaders' ability to create change, personally and organisationally, over years. This is hard, as decisions about resourcing leadership development are short term. The Foundation’s Future Leaders programme tries to address this in two ways: firstly, by emphasising that those who experience the program stay engaged as active alumni for years, feeding their experiences back to amplify the effects on the group as a whole; and secondly by engaging fully with the sponsors of each future leader to authentically nurture the learnings from the programme over the long term.

Organisations that fail to develop leaders who have these capabilities will not only suffer in the short term but see high-potential talented people — a resource already in short supply — move on. Expensive executive searches will need to be repeated, there will be a loss of momentum and companies will struggle with leaders who are out of step with the environment.

The bottom line is that leadership development needs to change to match how the world has changed. The need is for developing deep, not superficial, leadership capabilities; creating flexibility, not programmed behaviour; and the development of authentic leadership skills that help leaders to influence.

CC BY 4.0 Developing Leaders by Peter Thomas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.