Tag Archives: leadership development

The End of Leadership Development?

28 Feb

I have a radical hypothesis. I think it’s possible that the real reason leadership development (LD) programs fail is because we don’t actually need them. Now, experts would have us believe that there are tactical reasons why our LD efforts fail (see here), but I suspect that a small problem got worse when we created an industry around it. For someone like me, who makes a living on being a LD expert, this isn’t easy to admit. But, like any addiction, the first step to recovery is accepting that we have a problem. Let me explain.

Leadership development is a $170 billion dollar industry with organizations spending about $14 billion annually (see here and here). This investment isn’t surprising given our need for new forms of leadership to cope with the increasing globalization and technological change (here). In fact, going back to the 1940’s, LD has always been about teaching individuals how to adapt to their environment (here). Fast forward to today, 70 years later, and we are starting to realize that our billions might not be buying us very much.

Recent studies found that only about 25% of organizations think their leadership development programs are effective (here). Additionally, leadership quality ratings, which have never been very high, have not improved since 2006. In fact, only 18% of HR professionals feel their companies have the quality of leaders needed to run their companies three years out (here). It gets worse because organizations with the worst LD programs spent 60% more money on them (here). Even if you are highly skeptical of these statistics and you exclude any single report, the collective data tells a compelling story: the quality of leaders isn’t great and leadership development isn’t helping.

What is happening? Well, I think the problem starts with our assumptions about leadership. Our management model comes directly from the industrial revolution. Despite all of the technological innovations that have occurred in the last 100 years, management technology, if we can think of it as a technology, is out of date. Like the combustion engine, it’s a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Our command-and-control management is being radically challenged by decentralization, free agency, and mobile technologies (read this, this, this, this, and maybe this too). These changes require us to radically rethink LD itself. In short, I think we should do four things:

  • Focus on performance support. Performance support tools that give access to internal databases and reports might not be as sexy as a three-day retreat, but putting the most relevant information in employee’s hands at the right time will do a lot for leadership performance…even if it means we are less involved. In fact, my research on mobile leadership development (see here) shows that performance support currently makes up about 96% of all mobile leadership apps. I would expect that trend to extend beyond mobile applications.
  • Maximize traditional approaches. Despite the hype about e-learning and mobile learning, traditional face-to-face programs won’t go away (see here). Programs are more than just gaining information. They provide access to new networks, structured learning environments, and career-advancing credentials. All of which are inherent advantages over e-learning platforms. And if performance support tools replace some skill-based training, in-person programs can leverage their natural advantages.
  • Teach new leadership models. The nature of leadership is changing and we to tell people. The rise of the “network leader” shifts power to the person who is most relevant not the person with the most formal authority (see here). Everyone will need personal branding, knowledge management, and iterative project management skills. These new competencies can support the development of others. Just like an evolutionary algorithm, they are self-perpetuating practices that get us out of trying to predict what employees need to know.
  • Embed developmental processes. Take a play from the iterative approaches like Design Thinking, Agile development, and Lean Start-up and focus on adaptation. This shift from programs to processes means less reliance on LD programs, because individuals and teams have embedded learning processes. Examples of these include GE’s Workout process, the Army’s After Action Reviews, and Integrative Decision Making. By embedding learning processes into the DNA of the organization or team, leadership development becomes an implicit part of the work itself.

Globalization and technology are radically changing the nature of leadership and learning. We need to make some big adjustments and I think it’s possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is not just to create new programs, but to change our assumptions about LD itself.

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Four Problems with Action Learning (and lots of other methodologies)

19 Feb

There are a lot of group-process methods out there, but I’ve always had a soft spot for something called “action learning.” If you don’t know anything about it, I don’t blame you. In fact, not knowing isn’t the problem…the problem is people assuming they know, but they actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Having been involved in action learning for many years (and becoming a certified coach, and writing my dissertation on it), I can say, with some authority, that there are some problems.

The problems though are not with the method. I love the method. I think it’s great. (learn more here). The problems are with how we talk about action learning. In fact, I think there are four overlapping issues with action learning that I want to share. I think many of these issues are shared with other methodologies as well.

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The first problem is the roller coaster problem. I call it the roller coaster problem because no matter how many words I put to describing what riding a roller coaster feels like, you still won’t really know what it is like until you experience it. The solution to this problem is almost always to have people participate in a program themselves. Obviously, this makes it hard to spread the word about action learning. All we can do is spread the experience. In fact, usually we’d always provide a demonstration whenever we are introducing an audience to the concept. Obviously, this doesn’t make it easier to share the power of action learning outside of word-of-mouth, which so far has worked pretty well (….so far….).

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The second problem is what I call the “Michael Jordan” problem. The image above has two absolutely true statements. Michael Jordan loves basketball AND Michael Jordan never played a single day in the NBA. How is that possible? Well, that’s because…

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Yes, in fact, the Michael Jordan I was referring to was Michael Hakim Jordan. Michael-Hakim Jordan was unfortunate in that his name is shared by the greatest basketball player of all time. No doubt this has caused a lot of confusion and teasing for him, in fact in 2010 he officially changed his name. Well, unfortunately “action learning” cannot change its name so easily. But like Michael-Hakim Jordan, action learning was born with a name that has caused a lot of confusion. Reg Revans coined the phrase “action learning” in the 1940s to describe the process he was using, but since then the words “action” and “learning” are used so much that they’ve lost their resonance. Personally, I don’t think that the Michael Jordan problem is not going away. “Action learning” simply doesn’t catch your ear. So there is a branding issue that I think the World Institute of Action Learning helps resolve, but the issue remains. From previous experience, people often think of “Active learning” or “project learning” when they hear “Action learning,” which just causes all sorts of confusion.

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The third problem is what I call, “the two rabbits problem.” This applies to action learning because the methodology does two things simultaneously….it improves learning AND it improves performance. This is a good thing, but clients aren’t usually accustomed to that type of methodology. They tend to think that an intervention is EITHER a problem solving tool for business results and innovation OR it is a learning and development tool. It can be difficult to convince them that the real value in action learning is not just that it does BOTH of these things….but that it does both of these things simultaneously. On a more practical level, decisions about purchasing innovation interventions versus leadership development interventions are often made by two different people.

My solution to this problem is based on observation….and it’s the same advice I would give the hunter in the situation….he needs to pick one of the rabbits. In this case, I suggest that you should start with learning and development. This may be because learning and development is more of my area than say “business process improvement,” or “design thinking,” but from what I’ve seen you can position action learning as a comparable learning intervention to instructor-led training courses, case-studies, coaching, and other leadership development interventions.

Now, there are plenty of examples of “business action learning” or problem-focused action learning in which the purpose is solely to create new ideas and solutions. In this approach learning is often considered a secondary outcomes or not considered at all. That is fine too. It just depends on who is using it and what they are trying to achieve. I would argue that the true value proposition of action learning, as compared to other problem-based or project-based learning approaches, is much easier to describe when you are talking about organizational development or leadership development interventions. Although I should note that, historically, research bears out that balancing learning and problem-solving tends to yield better results for BOTH rather than focusing on just one.

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Finally, we have the “Frosted Flakes” problem. In the early 20th Century, ready-to-eat cereals were developed as a health food to replace heavy breakfast foods like sausage, eggs, coffee, and biscuits. They were to help patients recover in hospitals, but over time they developed into sugar-coated treats for kids. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek Michigan, who helped developed the ready-to-eat cereal wrestled with this issue from the very beginning. People want to be healthy but they also want something that tastes good. John Harvey decided to develop the medicinal cereals, while his brother, William decided to purpose the commercial market by adding sugar and flavor.

This same dynamic shows up in action learning. Action learning can be a transformative practice, but not everyone or every organization is ready for transformation. Change…especially significant change doesn’t necessarily taste very good. It requires vulnerability and discomfort. It may require you to challenge some deeply held assumptions. So, we try to sweeten it up. So, we take the real, unique, and powerful value of action learning and we “sugar it down”…by reducing it to nothing more than project-based learning. We talk about project work and the real solutions that will be generated and we shy away from being honest up front….this might not be the best intervention for you.

And I want to be clear here…I am not saying that it’s bad to use frosted flake approaches to solving problems. If they work well and give people what they need, then that’s fantastic. The problem I’m talking about it…is when tell people they are buying something that is good for them, when in fact they just bought some candy. The problem I’m talking about it when we conflate action learning with project-based learning, because we think it will be easier for people to understand. When ironically, the actual impact of that sales strategy is that it often makes action learning HARDER to understand.

So, a lot comes down to how much critical reflection the action learning program demands. I would argue that if you completely take out the critical reflection piece, then that is fine, just don’t call it action learning, please just call it “project-based learning” instead.

So, that’s my rant for now. Four problems and four ways that they impact our ability to talk about these really interesting transformational methodologies. I don’t have a lot of wisdom about how to offset them, but the first step is just acknowledging them. Or as an old professor of mine used to say “problematize” them.

*special thanks to myself for recycling slides from a presentation I gave last year.

 

 

 

The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

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We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

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The Problem with the Leadership Industry

10 Oct

 

I wanted to share some thoughts on why I think the leadership industry is heading in the wrong direction. We focus too much on the individual leader and not the social system within which individuals operate. In my view, “leadership” is most appropriately understood as a function or role of influence within a social system (or game). It is NOT an individual character trait or skill or ability.

The Leadership Development Outcomes of Action Learning

9 Oct

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After many years, I’ve finally submitted my doctoral dissertation. I thought I’d share the abstract of my research. 

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An Exploration of Significant Leadership Development Factors in Action Learning: A Comparison of Three Action Learning Programs

 As the need for new leaders has increased, so has the need for better forms of leadership development (Hamel, 2007; Lojeski, 2010; Gratton, 2011). Action learning has been popularized as one of these better forms of leadership development (Peters & Smith, 1998; Byrnes, 2005; ASTD, 2008; Trehan & Pedler, 2011). However, empirical research on the relationship between action learning and leadership development is only just beginning (Marquardt, et. al., 2009; Leonard & Marquardt, 2010). Given that action learning theory evolved out of practice, researchers are now trying to uncover governing variables that account for the observed practice effect (Leonard & Marquardt, 2010). In an effort to systematize the action learning methodology with consistent professional standards, the World Institute of Action Learning (WIAL) has provided a six-component model of action learning for program coaches and designers (Marquardt, 2004; 2011; WIAL, 2013). However, action learning, by definition, is based on the real and timely problems of an organization (Marquardt, 2011; WIAL, 2013) and therefore there is significant variety in how these programs are implemented.

Given these complexities, it is unclear which specific program factors may significantly impact the leadership development of participants. This study attempts to identify those factors by using an exploratory qualitative methodology informed by Moustakas (1994), Patton (2002), and Creswell (2012). Twelve action learning participants in three action learning programs were interviewed and their responses were analyzed by using a reductive thematic analysis.

This study found that two programs were effective in stimulating leadership development outcomes in participants. Participants in the third program showed less certainty and consistency in their responses. Across all three action learning programs, participants showed improvements in self-confidence, problem-solving, expanded professional network, coaching skills, and listening. The most significant program factors leading to these outcomes were the program coach, program maturity, problem type, intended program outcome, a supportive and safe group culture, group diversity, and the group questioning process. Implications for theory and practice and recommendations for future research are included.