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How Not to Develop Leaders – and How to Do It Right

Companies spend big money on employee training and education but it’s mostly wasted, according to an alarming study in the Harvard Business Review: “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It.”

Policies and practices

Harvard’s Michael Beer, a world-class expert on organizational effectiveness reveals an alarming secret: Despite all the money spent on it, training does not impact performance. He calls it the “Great Training Robbery”.

“A failure to execute on strategy and change organizational behavior is rooted not in individuals’ deficiencies but, rather, in the policies and practices created by top management”.

Primary factors

What are the primary factors that make training ineffective?
The Harvard study points to:

  • Unclear direction on strategy, leading to conflicting priorities among business functions.
  • Senior leaders who “don’t work as a team” and create a “top-down” culture where obstacles to effectiveness go unacknowledged.

In other words, a lack of strategic clarity and support from leadership renders training useless. You might as well inject yourself with inert saline solution in hopes of preventing disease—it won’t work.

Typical scenario

How is this so? Because of this typical scenario:

An employee is identified as a potential leader. She is scheduled to attend a leadership training course, where she is inspired and motivated by new ideas and learns about new skills.

Afterwards, she returns to her unit. No one asks her about her training experience. No one is interested in the new ideas she picked up. No one expects her to practice the new skills she learned about; in fact, her few halting attempts backfire: “That’s not how we do things around here.”

Because her new knowledge has little or no relevance to the organization’s priorities, it quickly evaporates.

Common barriers

In his work – helping managers have honest conversations about the effectiveness of their organizations – Michael Beer hears about six common barriers.
Companies consistently struggle with

  • unclear direction on strategy and values, which often leads to conflicting priorities;
  • senior executives who don’t work as a team and haven’t committed to a new direction or acknowledged necessary changes in their own behavior;
  • a top-down or laissez-faire style by the leader, which prevents honest conversation about problems;
  • a lack of coordination across businesses, functions, or regions due to poor organizational design;
  • inadequate leadership time and attention given to talent issues; and
  • employees’ fear of telling the senior team about obstacles to the organization’s effectiveness.

Silent killers

Because of that fear, Michael Beer calls these barriers “silent killers.” They almost always appear together, and they block the systemic changes needed to make training and education programs effective.

He saw firsthand how they initially thwarted leadership development at a UK medical technology company. The CEO, unsatisfied with his management bench, sought advice on building it out.

Though his partners in HR recommended investments in training, the CEO instead took a step back and asked Michael Beer to help his senior team enable managers in the organization to speak truth to power about barriers to their development.

Task force

A task force empowered to conduct confidential interviews reported that lack of training was not the issue. Rather, the senior team had not articulated a clear strategy and corporate values, so managers did not understand what practices and behaviors were expected of them.

Nor did the senior team spend much time discussing talent and planning developmental assignments for high potentials. In fact, because senior management had not created an integrated corporation, leaders were hoarding the best talent and transferring the worst to enable their own business units to succeed.

Clearly, the company had to tackle these systemic issues before it could implement a productive learning program for managers. Indeed, improving cross-unit integration would itself be a capability-development experience for the senior team and key managers that would lead to a better understanding of skills gaps that training and education might address.

Talent development

This is the approach to talent development that Michael Beer advocates, in six basic steps: The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction. After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.

Coaching and consultation

  • Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design
  • The organization adds training where needed.
  • Success in changing behavior is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
  • Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behavior.