Does Leadership Development Work?

A number of years ago, I was working on a new project to help an organisation improve its performance and deal with a big change in its market.  I was working to develop leaders’ capabilities to better lead themselves, their teams and the organisation to respond effectively to changes in their market.  A senior colleague working on a different part of the project asked me a question that surprised me.  With genuine curiosity she asked, “Does leadership development actually work?”  I was speechless.  It was as though she had questioned the existence of my God.  I fumbled some sort of response and moved on.

The question hit on a niggling feeling I have had for some time.  Has all the work I have done with leaders over decades actually worked? Can I claim, hand on heart, that our work in leadership development has had a positive impact? I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of leaders who claim our work together has made them better leaders and led to improved outcomes in their organisations.  But I also know that there were a number of leaders I have worked with who have reverted to old habits under pressure. It made me question whether our approach to leadership development might be missing something.

Vast sums are spent on leadership development.  Claims range from $14 billion annually (2012) in the USA to $366 billion globally (2019).  Whatever the actual number, it is big.  A McKinsey &Co report from 2014 titled ‘Why leadership development programs fail’  posited that leadership development programs could succeed if:

Companies can avoid the most common mistakes in leadership development and increase the odds of success by matching specific leadership skills and traits to the context at hand; embedding leadership development in real work; fearlessly investigating the mind-sets that underpin behavior; and monitoring the impact so as to make improvements over time.

These suggestions imply that leadership development focused on changing leader behaviour will improve organizational effectiveness.  But what if that assumption misses the major drivers of organizational dysfunction and ineffective leader behaviour?

The environment made me do it!

The focus of leadership development, in the main, has been on improving the leader.  We have fallen into the trap of thinking that if we just had better leaders a lot of our problems would be solved. But what if the environment that the leaders work in is part of the problem?  This is not a new idea.  In 1936 Kurt Lewin proposed that behaviour is a function of the person and their environment – B ƒ (P;E).   We have focused too much on the P part of the equation because individual characteristics are what draw our attention.  Social Psychologists Ned Jones and Dick Nisbett showed many decades ago that we prefer to make dispositional attributions about others’ behaviour, and we overlook the causes in the situation[1].  Moreover, the environment is a much more complex phenomenon and harder to influence.   But to ignore the environment is akin to what Bob Kegan referred to in his “goldfish” metaphor about how we typically try to develop leaders.  We take them out of their environment (their fishbowl), clean them up and then put them back in the same dirty water in the fish bowl, and wonder why their leadership doesn’t improve[2].

What if instead of asking “how can I make my leaders more strategic people” or “more collaborative people” or “better decision makers,” we asked: how do we affect the environment for leadership such that it creates a context where strategic, aligned, collaborative decision making can happen?  One key aspect of the environment for any person in an organisation is the team of which they are a member.  And we know, as Ruth Wageman says, that in teams ‘Structure drives behaviour’.  A key move every leader can make to improve the environment for their leaders, and therefore to shape more effective behaviour, is to consciously design their teams and ensure that the 6 conditions for high performance are in place.  High performing teams are ones that meet and exceed the expectations of their stakeholders.  High performing teams demonstrate superb collaboration and the capacity to learn their way forward.

As we deal with the impact of the Global Pandemic our organisations and communities clearly need high performing leadership teams to guide us through these challenging times.  So what does it mean to “consciously design” a team to ensure the 6 conditions for high performance are in place?

As a leader, where do I begin?

The second chapter of ‘Senior Leadership Teams – what it takes to make them great’ (Wageman et al 2008) is titled ‘First, decide if you need -and want- a team’.  Leading leadership teams is not for the faint hearted and not every task or context requires the full force of a high performing, collaborative decision making team.   ‘The first question is whether there is a vital business need that would be better met if you worked with a leadership team than with a loose collection of individual executives focusing on their own accountabilities’ (Wageman et al pg 88)[3]In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times, leaders more often than not require real teams to effectively deliver on the expectations of their stakeholders.  However, there are different types of real teams that suit a variety of different contexts:

  1. Informational teams – These teams don’t decide or perform work collectively.  They are teams that exchange information with each other that is focused on making the individual leaders better informed, aligned and able to do their individual jobs superbly.  These teams can be bigger in size and leaders are only loosely interdependent, needing each other for information.  For instance, I worked with a CEO in the oil and gas (O&G) sector who would bring together his top 25 leaders on a bi-weekly basis to share key markets, explorations, opportunities, development and production data to keep all executives aligned on the context and performance of the organisation.  This was a stand up/dial in meeting that only went for 30 mins and was laser-focused on what the leaders needed to know to do their work well.
  2. Consultative teams – Again, these teams don’t decide or perform work collectively.  Rather, they provide robust debate, advice and counsel, so that an individual leader facing a leadership challenge has the best perspective she can have to make a great decision within her own portfolio.  Consultative teams often are designed to support the team leader to be better informed and better able to do the job effectively.  The team will debate and advise on key decisions in response to changes in the context, acting as a sounding board for the leader in the decision making process.  These teams also support team members by giving them the opportunity to learn from and with one another as they debate key issues. It’s a great way to use the full complement of smarts in the team to inform important leadership challenges.  To work well, the consultative team needs a clear purpose and the right people on the team who can work together collaboratively.  They also need good norms: rules of engagement that allow them to debate constructively and still leave the focal leader the right to use that information to make her own decision in her own swim lane.
  3. Coordinating teams – The coordinating team is designed to more effectively manage the operational interdependencies of the enterprise.  They are responsible for making sure that the timing, sequencing, and alignment of key initiatives is implemented in a coordinated way.  The O&G CEO mentioned previously had an Operations Committee that met weekly and focused on the executives staying aligned as a team on key interdependencies inherent in running a large matrixed business with a number of business units, key functions and enabling processes.  This was a larger team (13 or 14 members), where leaders could send delegates if they were unable to attend, so long as that delegate was fully able to lead implementation in that part of the business.  A subset of this team were also members of the Executive Committee, which was set up as a decision making team.
  4. Decision making teams – Most complex of all, a decision making team is a team set up to work with the leader to make a small number of critical decisions that are most consequential to the enterprise, and to reach agreement together about the best way to proceed.  This is not leadership by committee, or for the purpose of doing the work of individuals in their own areas of responsibility.  It is a collaborative process which expresses the unique value add of this team coming together, leveraging the capacity of collaboration to make wise, informed decisions in the face of complexity.  To lead a decision-making team effectively, it is critical to articulate a compelling purpose for why this team as a team need to make these key decisions together.  Such teams also need the right people (especially people with real collaborative skills), with the right norms and work practices that enable both debate and synthesis, and resources such as key data, synthesized in a way they can use, to do the work.  Hence the special need for a thoroughly well designed team.  Without these design features, we have seen, leadership teams trying to make decisions together devolve into turf battles, who are unable to resolve differences, and often fail to make decisions as a leadership team…with the result that some smaller cadre of leaders around the CEO make the call behind closed doors.  And without an understanding of how these design features—the situation—shape leader behaviour, CEOs and team members often resort to blaming the individuals.  “They just can’t work as a team.”

So as leaders face into these VUCA times and try to lead their teams, organisations, and communities through the chaos and uncertainty driven by COVID 19 and its unpredictable path, they will do well to take a step back and ensure that they have built a real leadership team.  Do you want the best out of your leaders right now?  Ask yourself: Have you intentionally put in place a design that creates a context that elicits the best from them?  It may feel counter intuitive for leaders to stop and reflect on the design of their teams when there is so much pressure in the organisation and community to deal with the urgent.  But by attending to the environment you create for your leaders, you can ‘liberate the greatest amount of energy in his/her community/organisation (Follet pg 414)[2].

[1] Jones, E.E., & Nisbett, R.E. (1972).  The actor and the observer: Divergent perspectives on the causes of behavior. Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior.

[2] Quote from Immunity to Change workshop by Robert Kegan in Melbourne 2019

[3] Wageman R, Nunes D, Burrus J and Hackman R – Senior Leadership Teams – What it takes to make them  (2008) Harvard Business School Publishing Boston USA

[4] Parker Follett M The New State (1920) Barakaldo Books Boston USA