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There's Never Enough Leaders Pt 3: Why Leadership Programs are not Enough

We’re often a little too concerned about ‘not having the right talent’ which can lead to an expensive focus on ‘buying’ talent rather than ‘building it’. Gallup estimates the cost of replacing an existing member of staff between 50% and 200% of current salary. There are always times when moving staff on is the right thing to do, but what would it look like for us to shift the conversation to ask what it would look like to create ‘deliberately developmental organisations’ where we relentlessly focus on taking the people we already have, and develop them to be the very best they can be. It might not only create more engaged people (Gallup research is emphatic in the benefits here - lower absenteeism, higher productivity, lower turnover to mention a few) but actually be a more cost effective way of running an organisation. Interestingly, Google conducted a huge research project some years ago called Project Aristotle. One of the core findings of that research was that it matters less who is in the team, but more how they work together. Maybe our focus needs to be on creating healthy leadership that enables us to bring the very best from our people.

Zippia research suggests that 83% of organisations believe that leadership development at every level is very important, but only 5% of those organisations have actually implemented it. 77% of organisations don’t believe they have leaders who are equipped to do their job well, and 69% of Millenial's (who still make up the majority of the existing workforce) feel that leadership development is lacking.

So how do we begin to go about creating a simple, sustainable and scalable way of developing our leaders at every level? In the first article in this series I suggested that we need to focus on five important elements in order to build an effective Leadership Operating System. These are: a Target Leadership Model, a repeatable system, tailored content, supporting technology and a deep commitment to a relational model of apprenticeship. This article will think about the basic elements of creating your leadership system for everyone across your organisation.

A Leadership System

A good system is an ongoing, efficient, repeatable mechanism that is aimed at achieving standardised, consistent results but that can be iterated, adapted as we measure the effectiveness of the results. It is something that runs continually to produce consistent results and outcomes. The default position with learning and leadership development is still generally running programs. These are time bound, fixed, time heavy and only targeted at specific groups. They are good at specific points of transition in an employee lifecycle, but inefficient at building long term capacity and capability. When we think about designing a leadership system, we are talking about building a learning system that runs continually at every level in the business and should be able to develop any kind of skill, knowledge or expertise across its target group at any time. We are not talking about content here - this simply drives the specific skill being learned. A leadership development system draws together three core elements into one single, ongoing user experience: the user journey, and then the experiences and touchpoints that the user is exposed to. These are brought together and integrated into one seamless experience. Let’s think about each.

The user journey

Every member of your team goes through different phases in their journey within your organisation. These phases have slightly different needs driven by the unique demands and requirements the business and the members of your team have in each phase. Understanding the entirety of the journey and the needs at each phase helps us to design to make sure we keep engagement and motivation high, but that we provide the right abilities at the right time. I’ve found using a Time to Value map to help organisations think about this journey and plot what value needs adding to the team member at what stage to ensure both engagement and highest productivity for the business. This user journey then seeks to define the moments when a team member needs a more ‘unique’ experience to cater for one off moments in their journey with you (onboarding, first time manager, relocation, promotion etc.) and integrate it with the day to day developmental experience we are designing for that steadily builds long term capability and capacity.

System touchpoints

Touchpoints are the points of connection that a user has to a system. I think of these touchpoints mainly in terms of relational and technological points of connection. Relational touchpoints mean we are engaged in some form of discussion or engaging with new information with other people. Technological touchpoints support this foundational relational place of connection through reminders, prompts and good data to build greater leadership awareness. We will focus on the relational touchpoints here.

The most interesting research I have read that might help to understand the kinds of touchpoints we need to build an effective system was done by Hall (studying Proxemics) and Myers (The Search to Belong) that suggests that people learn and find belonging across four important kinds of ‘social space’. Those are: intimate space (1-2 people), personal space (6-12), social space (20-50) and public space (70+). Each ‘space’ creates a very different experience for those involved in it. The level of vulnerability, sense of being known, degree of accountability and depth of personalised interaction is very different. We don’t turn up in a large crowd of people and expect everyone to know we are missing or to engage in a deep and meaningful conversation that is tailored for us personally. Each space has a unique value and benefit for creating both belonging and learning. Each space has a unique ROI. The illustration below shows the kind of ROI we should expect from each of these social spaces along with the level of time investment from the leader.

Historically, most leader development happens in a one dimensional experience of social space taking the form of ‘workshops’. Workshops are great, but they alone don't bring real, lasting leadership transformation. When we think about designing the touchpoints in our leadership system, we design to leverage all four of these spaces but doing so knowing the kind of return we get from each space. 

System experiences

Experience is the best context for learning. Books and new content are really helpful - and something I would very much encourage people to be consistently engaged with as a source for their own learning. That said, the very best information for a leader to grow is found in their context day to day. Experience tells us how effective we are as a leader. The experience of the people around us every day inside our organisation is actually the very best source for our learning. Our lives are a library of information if we would step back and truly learn. Many leaders have a gap in their minds between their perception of reality, and reality itself. Understanding this gap, both operationally and interpersonally, by building the right feedback loops to surface this gap and then taking this insight into smart action planning is what most drives growth. Otherwise learning can be indiscriminate and solely interest led, rather than need led. This kind of learning doesn’t always provide the intentional and focussed development we really needed. The best development also takes place when experience comes before information. Exposing people to lots of information - however good it is - before people feel a real need for it based on their experience inside your organisation is often wasted time and effort. 

Our system design should both intentionally design for creating certain learning experiences (forcing skill application, pushing out of comfort zone) that take the user beyond their current knowledge and skill, but also effectively create the space to learn from the experiences they are having day to day. 

Building a leadership system that works well for you takes time and is no short term fix, but if done well, becomes a core part of building the capability and capacity for your organisation to perform at its highest level. It means you will rarely struggle for wondering where the leadership talent is within your organisation. Establishing this should go hand in hand with building an effective operating model that delivers your goods and services to the client. 


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