Warren Buffett tells a story about the first time he and Bill Gates met (in other words, when the second richest man in the world met the richest).

They were at a party when Bill’s dad asked members of their table, “What is the one thing that has most helped you succeed?”

According to Buffett, both he and Gates gave the same answer: “I know how to focus.”

Most leadership development programs aren’t focused. They are a grab bag of general topics that leaders might need (or the trainers have content on at least).

That’s nice, but no longer enough. The leaders I work with, for example, are so overloaded that when they get the rare time for formal development, they need it to be targeted on the ‘vital few’ areas that will address their greatest pain.

As I outlined in the last post on Moneyball, to find out what these were we looked at 300 leaders across 3 organizational levels to uncover the areas they identified as their 3 most important leadership challenges. The results are fascinating (if you’re a leadership nerd like me) and shown in the table below:

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The top 3 leadership challenges, as rated by 300 leaders from the C-Suite, Senior Executive, and Mid-Level.

I’ve listed what I think this means for leadership development below.

1. There is a Big 3 of leadership development. Not every topic matters evenly. You’ve probably heard of the 80/20 principle – 20% of inputs cause 80% of outputs. e.g 20% of your customers produce 80% of your revenue, 20% of authors sell 80% of the books.

According to this data there is also an 80/20 in leadership. Roughly the same 20% of challenges are selected by 80% of the leaders. They are: Change, Collaboration, and Leadership Skills (C.C.L., as it happens!).

If your leadership development efforts aren’t highly focused on addressing these challenges, you are probably digging for oil in the wrong area (sorry; I just moved to Texas).

2. Most organizations spread their resources too thin. Many of the organizations I meet try to cover too many different leadership topics as if they all matter evenly. They don’t.

Organizations have limited resources (time and money) and leaders have limited bandwidth (time and attention).

Don’t let what matters most (the Big 3) be crowded out by what matters least. Check where you are putting most of your focus at the moment and adjust to focus mainly on the Big 3.

Let’s face it – if you have an organization with leaders who can: lead and cope with change, collaborate to execute, and use empowering leadership styles – aren’t you 80% of the way there? (I’ve personally changed my approach to focus much narrower than I had before.)

3. The Big 3 evolve at each level of the organization. While the big topics stay important as you progress up the organization, the nature of the challenge keeps changing (and therefore so do your leader’s development needs).

  • Change: Change is sometimes described as, ‘What the top, tells the middle, to do to the bottom.’ Our leaders told us that at the top their biggest challenge was deciding on and leading the change, at the senior exec it was about executing that change and in the middle it was about coping with all those changes (from above). Change matters at all 3 levels, but different skills sets are required at each. These days I am putting a lot more effort into helping leaders at different levels understand change and the toolkits they will need at their organizational level.
  • Collaboration: Everyone finds collaboration hard – and everyone needs skill development here. What is interesting is that the groups that the leaders are challenged to collaborate with evolve over time. In the middle, the collaboration challenges really are in every direction. For senior executives we saw lots of issues around how to ‘manage up’ and in the C-suite the issues became about how to collaborate with powerful peers – C.F.O. meet C.O.O. We all need to learn how to partner well. But we also need to know which people matter most at which stage of our career (and not many people tell you that).
  • Leadership Styles and Skills: While this category may seem a little catch-all, when we look level by level, we can be more specific. Leaders in the middle struggle most with control issues, either too much (they won’t delegate) or too little (they won’t assert). The higher up you go, the more it becomes about your style and what you give off to others. As Steve Kerr, this year’s NBA winning coach of the Golden State Warriors said, “10% of being a great coach is strategy and tactics. That’s easy and we all enjoy that part. But 90% of success is the environment you create.” Do the leaders at the top of your organization know how to create a create an environment or culture? This is where many of my clients are now asking for the most help.

4 Quick Wins/ Conversation Starters

Here are 4 quick steps you can take to use the Big 3 in your organization:

1. Audit your current approach. Examine your leadership development programs against the table above and ask – are we focusing our efforts on the areas that leaders say are their most important challenges?

2.Create a Curriculum that Covers the Big 3. Create a leadership development architecture that focuses most of your efforts on Change, Collaboration, and Leadership Skills. Adjust what you focus on about the Big 3 across the levels – i.e., don’t teach executive presence to a mid-level leader, or delegation to an upper one. Neither group will listen.

3. Find the elite methods, tools, and approaches for developing the Big 3. If these are the topic areas that make the biggest difference, then you want to make sure your organization creates world class methods to develop them. Create an in-house capability to develop the Big 3 through both formal programs and through on-the-job development. Look around for the methodologies, tools, and thought leaders who have the best results and start adopting their approaches.

4. If you want the best, but don’t have it in-house, rent it. If you want to boost your internal capability fast, just find the very best coach, consultant, designer (or ideally all 3) who can transfer this knowledge into the organization.

The lesson of the above is that in leadership development as in life, a few things matter a lot and most stuff doesn’t matter at all. The key is working out which is which.

Because if you do, you will be able create great leadership programs on topics that your leaders really care about.

And like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, you will say “I succeeded because I knew how to focus.”

(With the only difference being……..you won’t be rich like them.)

Follow Nick Petrie as he shares the latest approaches he and other practitioners are experimenting with as they try to discover the future of leadership development.

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