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The Problem with DIY Leadership Development

By Bruce Court

woman feeling troubled at workEarlier this year, when I was watching the tens of thousands of runners take part in the London Marathon, it took me back to when I started running. Initially, I just wanted just to get in shape, then my competitive spirit kicked in and I started entering events, including the London Marathon. I thought I was doing well, my results improved, and I was losing weight. I was training on my own and doing what I thought was the right way to prepare for running such a long race.

As it turned out, my first marathon turned into a painful and disappointing experience, but I knew I could get better, so I decided to change my training approach. One year later I ran the London Marathon again, finishing almost an hour faster than the previous year, with no pain. I enjoyed the experience and felt a sense of achievement as I received my medal.

Leaders who adopt a “DIY approach” to leadership development, as I did for my first marathon, and the companies who sanction the same approach, will have a high proportion of their leaders feeling like I did. Many of those leaders will be achieving only a fraction of their full leadership potential, with all of the associated performance implications.

To make sure leaders get the maximum return on the time and resources being used for their development, there are some “essential” elements that need to be in place to enable and ensure each leader reaches his or her full potential.

Many people see runners as individuals. At a marathon, thousands of individuals take part, and all of them are motivated to run for different reasons, but they have a common goal; they want to finish. Leadership development should create a similar feeling where you have people, all motivated to be a leader, with a level of support so leaders never feel they are on their own, and they will be motivated to take part and cross the finish line.

What leaders want vs. what they get

The modern learner’s needs and expectations differ from learners of the past. The 2018 Global Leadership Forecast reported what leaders want and how much they are getting from 19 different learning methods.

The reality is what leaders are being given is different from what they want. As a consequence of this, they will either gravitate to what they want, but it might not be what they need, or they might simply give up as they lose the motivation to continue. The graphic below presents a visual summary of how disconnected we are from meeting the needs of today’s learner:

graphic that shows the learners leaders want vs. what they get

Once development tools are chosen and made available to learners, an important next step is to ensure each learner identifies and understands his or her own learning preferences. These learning preferences provide a guide, suggesting how a leader likes to learn. DDI suggests four learning preferences:

  1. Thinking Alone: Preferring to study, observe, and plan before undertaking a new activity
  2. Thinking with Others: Preferring to get others’ ideas before trying new behaviors
  3. Acting Alone: Preferring to plunge into a new activity independently rather than studying in advance
  4. Acting with Others: Preferring to act on rather than contemplate learning new thing, but rely on others for feedback and advice, or to be role models

Knowing learners favor one of these four preferences enables organizations to provide a range of learning options to accommodate the four learning styles. One approach will not be able to meet the learning styles of all the learners.

When learners know and understand their preferred learning style, they can identify and leverage the activities that will enable them to enthusiastically accomplish their development goals, resulting in greater retention. They’ll also apply what they have learned, resulting in goals being met in a shorter period of time, thereby increasing the return on the time and money being invested in development.

Probably one of the most important reasons why it is unwise to permit DIY leader development is that without guidelines or framework, there is no guarantee the investment in time and resources is going to result in meaningful, measurable outcomes.

3 building blocks to learner success

The first and possibly the most important step to mitigating risk is to determine the essential skills that are going to be required for success as leaders prepare for the challenges ahead. This was a key component I didn’t consider, or if I did, I didn’t take them seriously, as I prepared for my first marathon!

For both runners and learners, there are three building blocks that enable success once the essential skills have been determined:

1. Assess (Target Goals). Begin with identifying the strengths, as well as growth areas within the predetermined essential skills. Too often the strengths get ignored.

To help the learner determine where to focus, it is best to gather insights from a variety of sources. For example, if you have assessment data, you could also ask your manager for his or her perspective. We need to determine high-payoff opportunities. This is done by asking questions:

  • What are the current or future needs of the team or organization?
  • What are the key skills/knowledge/abilities needed to meet those needs?
  • What are the personal, team, and organizational payoffs for developing in those areas?

Once these questions have been answered, begin by keeping the application in mind—keep it simple, with a focus on one strength and one growth area.

2. Acquire addresses how a learner develops in the area he or she seeks to improve. Best practice suggests that learners use a combination of learning methods. Ideally, they can leverage learning opportunities that address more than one need at the same time. It is important to identify the potential barriers that could get in the way and to agree on the type and level of support needed to address the barriers.

3. Apply is when learners get to use what has been learned. The application should be immediate and progressive, as the longer learners delay in using what’s been learned, the less they remember to use. Learners need know the progress and outcome measures; without them the learner will have no idea if what he or she is doing is making an impact.

Just as they do when they are in the acquire phase, learners need to anticipate any barriers they might encounter and have a plan to overcome them. When learners take a planful approach to development, it should be possible to leverage application opportunities that provide multiple benefits. Finally, the learners should be open to any unexpected application opportunities.

The result of taking a “planful” approach to leadership development

Following this approach creates a safe, supportive environment for everyone. It motivates leaders to put one foot in front of the other and keep going, rather than giving up at the first hill they encounter—leading to a meaningful investment of time and an improved bottom-line performance. What other results can be expected?

DDI conducted research that shows how taking a structured, disciplined approach to developing leaders pays off for everyone who is involved and impacted by leadership development.

The performance outcomes of leaders who aren’t relying on a DIY approach to development, compared to those that do, indicates that adding structure and discipline to how leaders “prepare” to perform is a good investment.

Check out the latest Leadership 480SM Podcast, Being a Leader is Hard and don't forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!

bruce court imageBruce Court partners with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy. He’s experienced in every facet of leadership strategy design, development, and execution. Outside of work, Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen. He loves eating at great restaurants, as well as “sampling” good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.

Posted: 19 Jun, 2019,
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