Effective Leadership Development: Avoid Six Common Pitfalls
The following article first appeared in Leadership Excellence, November 2007. Reproduced with permission.
It’s a familiar scenario: Senior leaders and executives go off-site for a senior executive services team-building or leadership development program with noble intentions and an ambitious agenda, but weeks afterward they find little benefit from their time and effort. Surprisingly many organizations repeat the same leadership mistakes that cause these events to miss the mark or provide ephemeral value.
These programs often fail to achieve their objectives because of six common leadership mistakes:
1. Urgency overrides preparation.
Seeing a pressing need to address key issues, the CEO wants her team to meet as soon as possible, often within two weeks. Her HR advisors may have been trying for years to get this executive to invest in her team. Yet while they are thrilled that at last they have a convert, the zeal to deliver while the CEO is still interested may supersede thorough preparation. This lack of proper preparation can seriously hinder an effective leadership development plan. Often the leadership development component will be tagged on to an already overloaded business planning agenda. There is rarely enough time to involve all stakeholders beforehand in thoughtful discussions about what the true issues are (as well as what issues they actually have the energy to solve). The facilitators then enter blind. The actual sponsor of the event may be inaccessible apart from an initial briefing at the beginning of the three-week design sprint, so key decisions are left to the HR partners. Understandably, the content begins to lean toward the safe and the sure rather than what is required to make a truly effective leadership development plan.
We were once asked to run an off-site for a CFO’s team (held on July 3rd, sending a message about its true importance). We were told we couldn’t access the CFO and his assistant for two of the three weeks’ lead time because the firm was busy with an acquisition. We passed, explaining that the ROI for this session would be limited given that the senior leaders had other urgent, business-critical issues on their minds.
Recommendation: Don’t force-fit leadership development. Sometimes delaying or postponing a session is the best course of action.
2. Participants fail to engage emotionally.
Unless you work for NASA, effective leadership development is not ‘rocket science’. It’s not that difficult to get executives to intellectually agree with and understand what they need to do to be more successful. The challenge is getting them to personally engage and wrestle with the changes that they need to make to become better leaders. While everyone may nod in agreement, they may not walk away caring enough to overcome the discomfort of trying something new.
Leadership is personal. It must begin with inward reflection — a willingness to confront the emotional forces that cause us to behave in certain ways. This is not done without some risk for the leaders and the facilitators. Adequate trust and time has to be built into a session to enable this to play out. Getting a senior team to open up in five minutes is not a recipe for success.
Recommendation: Data can help build the case for change, but don’t stop there. Make sure the program provides the time to drive individual reflection of personal values and taps into the motivation of the person behind the title.
3. The CEO can’t contain him/herself.
A leadership off-site seldom begins without the CEO or senior leader calling upon everyone to “Speak up!” Almost inevitably the CEO mistakes his vehemence for leadership and can scarcely keep his forceful personality in check. While he believes that he is exhorting everyone to join in with candor, the group hears a threatening ultimatum. Intimidated, they close up, the CEO becomes frustrated, and the situation gets worse.
This leadership mistake reminds me of the quote attributed to Samuel Goldwyn: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth — even if it costs them their jobs.”
Recommendation: Coach the CEO before the session. Discuss when and how this senior leader should voice his opinions. Agree on when and how the facilitators will step in to redirect the top leader’s enthusiasm.
4. Awkward issues are not confronted.
Few senior leaders consider how their personal qualities or their team’s behavior may affect performance. Yet effective leadership development calls for self-awareness. I recently conducted a session in which the senior leader asked everyone to set aside their daily agenda and BlackBerrys and focus on getting value out of the event. He even asked them to coach him — to call him out if they ever saw him using his. Everyone applauded, but on four occasions when he went into ‘BlackBerry prayer’ mode, nobody spoke up and the moment was lost.
Recommendation: Help the senior team practice discussing undiscussables — the issues that no one wants to talk about that are impeding the team’s effectiveness. Make sure the facilitators leading the session have the competence and confidence to challenge the group and individual leaders on awkward issues and bad behavior — and then guide agreement on how the leaders will hold each other accountable for better behavior in the future.
5. Trendy triumphs over consequence.
The latest business best seller often becomes the catalyst for senior executive interest in leadership development. Books can provide great food for thought and inspiring stories to prompt a leader’s reflection on his or her own actions. When translated into a learning event, they rarely provide effective leadership development or lasting value, since few books lend themselves to practical application. Without careful design and facilitation, a program based on a book can become occupied with discussions of the life experiences of a celebrated leader. This leadership mistake happens because pivotal leadership moments can’t be borrowed or benchmarked. They reflect the author’s personal experience. The latest research of the latest management guru may prompt a lively debate, but participants won’t necessarily leave the session with specific action steps they can integrate into their own work. Worse yet, so much is written about leaders and leadership that it’s tempting to regularly introduce the latest methodology or insights. The result: The organization’s leadership style becomes a patchwork quilt of fads and clichés.
Recommendation: Concentrate on relevant challenges and behaviors that need to be addressed. Steer the conversation from the CEO’s fondness for the latest best seller to a candid discussion of desired outcomes. Go deeper into one school of thought rather than ride the waves of trends. ‘New’ may be inviting, but the CEO wants something that works.
6. Culture is not receptive to change.
Even the best leadership development programs will fail to have an impact if your culture is not receptive to change. Too often senior executives want to train away problems or use development initiatives to raise the bar on leadership behavior. But if the culture punishes risk-taking, or worse, rewards the same behaviors that need changing, then training and development are beside the point — unless they focus on culture change.