All development is self-development. It’s never something that is done to us. We need systems and programs to create frameworks and opportunities for development, but if we neglect the personal commitment of the individuals involved, development will founder.
If participants aren’t motivated to grow, the effects will be minimal, superficial, and transient. The lesson is that every kind of leadership development has to incorporate a personal element. No single thing works for everyone. Here are 2 cases that illustrate this point.
Case 1: Overwhelming Complex Challenge
Michael called me about one of his new vice presidents. “She seems to have reverted to an old style of hers. She’s digging into the weeds in her new division and is killing the enthusiasm that greeted her appointment only 2 months ago. Can we get her some coaching?”
After a little digging around, I found that this leader was showing signs of being overwhelmed by the collision of her expectations and the confusing mix of directions that were driving this newly combined division. Everyone had different expectations and senior management only knew that they expected some great synergy from the new group, but were not themselves very clear about how it would be achieved.
I told Michael: “We can give her a coach, but I think what she really needs is a week away from all of you and a chance to rethink her approach to strategic leadership. Send her to our Leading Strategically Program and I think she will have a chance to get focused on the right level of intervention and figure out her own way to manage the competing pressures. If she wants a coach to help process that, let’s do that after she’s been given the space to exercise the talent you see in her.”
Why recommend that? The pressure of a new position, especially one that is subject to multiple forces with differing interests, allows almost no time for real thoughtfulness. And real thought is the most precious and powerful resource a smart and accomplished leader needs in this situation. An open-enrollment program provides that time. The leader can also benchmark her leadership approaches against those of different industries and sectors. The sense of community built in an intense, week-long program and the focus on strategy will help keep her stable and get a bigger picture.
Results: It worked. She recalibrated her ability to focus on what was really important. She remembered that strategy is a learning process and she was able to create a set of steps to involve her people and stakeholders. They came together over a common view of the opportunities and challenges. Michael told me her people were less anxious and reduced their complaining dramatically. She did involve a coach, primarily to help her team get better at honest, solution-oriented communication.
Case 2: Dynamic & Difficult
I was talking with Divya about the custom leadership development program we co-created with her for director-level leaders. Over the 3 years we had worked together, her organization had found that having a common language to talk about leadership, a set of core values driving their leadership strategy, and supporting skill development had paid off in important business and reputation results.
Divya was concerned about a few people for whom it didn’t seem to click. One director in particular had a nasty reputation and was viewed as disruptive. He was seen as hard to work with, and peers and direct reports often used words like “rude” and “insensitive” to describe him. He had gone through the company program, but like water off a duck, it rolled right off him.
I suggested, “Don’t get rid of him yet. He makes money for you and has delivered what your customers want. Let’s offer him a leadership development experience based on self-awareness and see if we can help him manage his toxicity.”
Divya sent him to our Leadership Development Program in Brussels after I coached her on a way to introduce the idea. The key enticement was a chance to really increase his own satisfaction by focusing on maximizing his strengths. The program gives participants a chance to see themselves in a completely new light and to try out undeveloped aspects of their leadership repertoire.
Why suggest that? We almost always overestimate the quantity and quality of feedback that a “problem leader” is getting. There are so many social dynamics in the workplace that hinder direct, helpful communication that sometimes the only way to get someone’s attention (without punishing them) is to send them away for an experience.
Also, a leadership development effort that focuses on increasing a leader’s capacity to uncover and respond to how they are being experienced has long-term benefits as the challenges change. Learning how to learn begins with the understanding that you need to seek out information about your impact.
Results: So far, the Leadership Development Program and a little follow-up coaching has turned the director into a more thoughtful leader. It’s still early, but he had the insight that his focus had been only on short-term results. After the program, he said, “I realized I need to balance short- and long-term results… and long-term results require more digging into the thinking and wisdom of my people and my colleagues.”
It’s surprising what a little space for listening can do to help a leader create a better environment for everyone to perform more willingly.
What are the lessons? These 2 cases illustrate some characteristics of open- enrollment programs that are sometimes overlooked. What are those characteristics?
- Away. Open-enrollment programs are held someplace else. It is not the normal work environment, but the experience is sponsored by your organization. Psychologically, being in a different location opens us to new possibilities. When we need someone to make a significant change in thinking and acting, getting away may be essential.
- Anonymity. Participants don’t start from a position of thinking they know each another. They come from different industries, different cultures and countries, and they may never see each other again. The impact on a participant is that they are free to try on new ways of thinking and behaving that might have felt too different or risky in the workplace or home.
- Community. At the same time, a measured environment of challenge provides the right balance of safety and encouragement. Participants come to care about each other and want others to do well. This is the psychological environment in which change, including transformational change, can occur.
- Focus. For many participants, their time at an open-enrollment program may be the only sustained time they’ve taken a serious look at themselves in their adult working lives. To get feedback from observers at home and in the program can be a startling experience. It sets us up to make changes that reconnect our sense of who we are to the mission of our work.
The lesson for me is that effective approaches to leadership development will always require a range of modalities and experiences. Most leadership development happens on the job in just meeting the challenges of leading, but all of us have experiences from which we learn little. Intentional development changes the equation to allow us to squeeze all the wisdom we can from the work we do. Open-enrollment participation has some unique advantages for the right people.