What’s Gone Wrong With Developing Leaders?

Please enjoy this sample introduction and chapter from What’s Gone Wrong with Developing Leaders. Don’t forget to follow the link and purchase.


I have one core mission in my work life: to ignite passion, pride, and effectiveness in organizations, leaders, and employees. Though this mission statement is short and sweet, it’s not always easy. Many companies and managers fall back on the same old, same old when it comes to trying to develop effective leadership. That often translates to rolling out “training events” designed to try to manage broad areas that can’t really be managed, such as change, time, and stress.

However, it takes more than a few “lunch and learn” initiatives to help organizations and individuals truly deal with the complexities of the workplace. The issues go far beyond standardized knowledge and training, so it’s ineffective to slap on a “one size fits all” approach, such as those available through a “corporate university,” standardized e-learning tools, or leadership training courses that have not been designed to address your company’s specific challenges. In short: most of what passes today for leadership training and development just doesn’t work.

How do I know that standard leadership development doesn’t work? Just ask your employees. Employee engagement offers a reflection of your company’s leadership, for better or for worse. A 2011 study on employee job satisfaction and engagement by the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that even if employees are satisfied with their jobs, that doesn’t automatically translate into an engaged workforce.

The research showed that while a majority of employees (83 percent) are generally satisfied with their current positions, only 68 percent feel passion and excitement for their job, and just over half (53 percent) feel tuned in at work. That’s a 30 percent drop-off between satisfaction and engagement.

To properly influence culture in a way that results in better engagement, you must first understand what true engagement would look like in your company. Real business success needs that optimal employee engagement, and that needs to be driven by the best leaders—and that’s what this book is all about. You need to avoid falling into the trap of a “sheep dip” approach and rethink your approach to leadership development.”

Once you see how all-encompassing the concept of culture really is, and what it takes to influence it at every stage of an employee’s development to improve engagement, you can understand why it’s so important for organizations to take a new approach to leadership development. By starting today to rethink your approach to training and development, you can begin to foster the type of effective leaders who, in turn, develop engaged employees that drive the health and productivity of your company.

To properly influence culture in a way that results in better engagement, you must first understand what optimal engagement would look like in your company. That’s what this book is all about. Once you see how all-encompassing the concept of culture really is, and what it takes to influence it at every stage of an employee’s development to improve engagement, you can understand why it’s so important for organizations to take a new approach to leadership development. By starting today to rethink your approach to training and development, you can begin to foster the type of effective leaders who in turn develop engaged employees that drive the health and productivity of your company.

If your workforce isn’t truly engaged in their work, then your company’s approach to training isn’t working. Effective, engaged leaders lead to effective, engaged employees that drive productive, healthy companies. In fact, separate research has shown that employee engagement is a force that drives overall performance outcomes, and is a leading indicator of a company’s financial performance. Anything less than true engagement means your organization is failing to maximize its talent and potential.

However, if satisfaction doesn’t equal engagement, then what does? The answer is: more than one thing. I refer to engagement as an über-dimension; in other words, a behavior that contains not just a single facet, but multiple ones. Trust, for example, is an über–dimension because within the concept of trust are many attributes and various levels. Trust can be given, and trust can also be earned; you can be trusting but not trustworthy.

The same is true for employee engagement. Engagement goes far beyond simply wanting your employees to be “happier at work.” All aspects of a company’s culture influence the level of engagement—or disengagement—of your employees. That includes everything from the corporate communication style, to employees’ perceived level of influence within the organization and with customers, to the evaluation and review system, to everything in between.

In fact, engagement starts even before you hire someone. Engagement begins with the reputation of your company and its products and services, as well as the corporate role in the community. It continues with the recruitment and interviewing process. It includes understanding which behaviors are a good fit with your organization and which aren’t, so that your managers can make smart hires and start off on the right foot. 

Once someone is hired, the on-boarding and integration process during the first 60 to 90 days is vital to fostering positive engagement. So is the leadership team’s ability to effectively communicate strategy and vision—and management’s ability to translate and link to that strategy and vision in each department. In the end, it comes down not just to management, but to each and every person in the company helping to create a culture that encourages engagement rather than squelches it.

If you were to look up the definition of Leadership Development in Wikipedia, here’s what you would find:

Leadership development expands the capacity of individuals to perform in leadership roles within organizations. Leadership roles are those that facilitate execution of a company’s strategy through: building alignment, winning mind-share and growing the capabilities of others.

Read on though, and there is this somewhat compelling piece:

Classroom-style training and associated reading is effective in helping leaders to know more about what is involved in leading well. However, knowing what to do and doing what one knows are two very different outcomes; management expert Henry Mintzberg is one person to highlight this dilemma. It is estimated that as little as 15% of learning from traditional classroom-style training results in sustained behavioral change within workplaces.

Part 1

Why Most Leadership Development Doesn’t Work


Managing the Unmanageable

Do you believe that developing your leaders can solve all of your company’s organizational performance issues? Do you hope, like many other executives and entrepreneurs, that the answer is simply to “send them to a class—that will fix them”? This is just plain wrong. There are many issues and problems a business can face, and rolling out a generic training initiative is not always the answer. In reality, the approach that companies take to address any development effort is futile without it being tied to specific learning objectives that are relevant to your company and your company alone.

How often have I sat across the desks of small business owners or CEOs as they told me about employee turnover, communication challenges, and the struggle to hold people accountable for just doing their job? How often have I heard them describe how their business is stagnant—or maybe worse, their profits are down and operating costs are up? The answer is: more often than any of us would like to admit. Particularly disturbing is the fact that these concerns affect every aspect of these leaders’ businesses, including customer service, quality, productivity, and overall effectiveness.

Yet despite these clear, comprehensive challenges, companies and managers often take the wrong approach to leadership development by focusing on trying to teach employees how to manage unmanageable aspects of their job. They champion predictable “training events” in a misguided attempt to help employees wrap their arms around problematic areas that match certain industry buzz words: change management, anyone? How about stress management, or time management?

Some things just can’t be managed, and these programs aren’t focused on the right things. For that reason alone, such training initiatives will not ultimately help companies reach their overall organizational goals in these areas. These programs also won’t help to advance corporate growth strategy in any arena. How could they? The heart of these programs involves taking a solution from somewhere else without any consideration that your organization could have differences—even if they are minor—that render the strategies useless.

The bottom line is this: a two-hour module won’t do it. In order to help employees truly deal with the challenges and complications of their work environment, you must go deeper and get more specific. These issues go far beyond what can be addressed by standardized knowledge and development tools promising quick-fix solutions.

Why One Size Fits One

Every company is trying to solve a specific problem. What problem is your company trying to solve? The reason that most corporate training initiatives fail is that no one ever sits down to determine the answer to that question in advance. Without knowing what needs solving, training won’t engage the correct problem-solving process. Your employees might be using techniques they’ve learned, but failing to apply them to the right problems.

Management expert Harold Stolovitch gets at this reality with his concept of “Telling Ain’t Training.” Most development efforts are simply exercises in “telling”—a facilitator talks at you about scenarios that are likely to be totally unrelated to your organization’s unique issues. What should happen instead is that the “telling” needs to be transformed into connection, education, and application opportunities to develop customized activities that result in long-term behavior change.

To put it more simply, employees need the opportunity to be developed, not trained. You develop people; you train dogs. The difference is that while dogs are simply parroting back an action, people have the ability to apply their learnings to specific situations. You can’t just “rinse and repeat” if your techniques aren’t tied to a specific problem. Parroting back management principles—even if the principles are sound—won’t get your company where you want it to go, but applying the right principles for your company will. Basic principles don’t change much over time, but the application of those principles needs to be ever-changing to fit individual situations.

The application part of the leadership development puzzle is critical. I often tell teams I’m working with in this context that if they don’t think I’m right then go apply it. Then come back and tell me that I’m wrong. I advise them to tie the technique to their specific problem, then “rinse and revise” until they get where they’re trying to go. In truth, I hope that they do tell me I’m wrong—then we’ll have a conversation that’s based on what’s actually happening. It’s the dialogue that results from education and application that leads to true change. You need to assess what truly needs to be done, and then reinforce the learning.

Workshops aren’t really the problem—the problem is that most workshops aren’t designed with your company’s issues in mind. They’re one size fits all, when in reality, one size only fits one. What really needs to happen is that every workshop must be designed to address the problem that your company is trying to solve. Leadership development workshops should reflect a theme that’s only meaningful to your company.

Here’s a case in point:

One company that I worked with chose the theme “I’m Possible.” The theme was not an “off the shelf” program, but one that emerged after several months of working closely with the company’s management team to discover together what problem they were trying to solve.

This particular company had previously created a tradeshow initiative called “Follow Possible.” The initiative had a two-pronged mission: to encourage potential customers to better understand certain innovative areas that the company was working toward, and to follow the possibilities of new strategies for future growth.

The “Follow Possible” theme resonated with employees because of the cultural references to the television series and movies that shared a similar name: “Mission Impossible.” The theme evoked a sense of teams working together to overcome difficult challenges and unlikely odds, so we decided to leverage this commonality to address the company’s specific challenges.

Because of the company’s successful history with “Follow Possible,” the “I’m Possible” theme offered a catchy way for senior management to capture the spirit of current initiatives while spinning it into something new. By morphing the feeling of “Impossible” to “I’m Possible,” the company was able to provide employees with a sense of self-empowerment and possibility. It was the right choice for this particular management team, because it brought together their unique corporate history around a theme that was already familiar to employees, yet the revised spin made it fresh and relevant, Mission Impossible style.  

Here’s another example:

A new CEO came to the helm of a company that was struggling with revenues, employee morale, and community perception. The CEO recognized the potential within the organization, but needed a way to harness the power of employees and managers alike. There was only one problem: while they were a clinical organization focused on the mission of helping people, they were failing to act like a revenue-generating one.

What was needed were leaders who would actively embrace change within the company. This company did not need generic initiatives about change management, but a series of leadership development workshops designed to spur people to action in the context of what that organization was all about.

The resulting program was called “LEAP”—“Leaders Execute and Perform”—with the mantra: “You can’t jump a chasm in two small steps—it takes a LEAP!” All leadership development efforts were inextricably linked to the specific initiative that this company was trying to solve: management recognized that it would take a leap of faith to get to a new direction.
Both the “I’m Possible” and “LEAP” themes told stories that worked for these particular companies—and these companies alone. The concepts behind these themes will never exist again in the same way for any other organization, because there will never be the identical players, barriers, and conditions that brought these themes to life. You need to find a way to do the same, but differently—that’s the only way that your company can hope to manage the unmanageable.