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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Wade

Four keys to improve leadership skills

Updated: Apr 23

For years, organisations have invested significant time and money on improving the capabilities of experienced managers and building skills of new leaders. US companies spend almost more than $13 billion each year on leadership development. Moreover, more than 70% of executives include leadership development and voluntary turnover (a consequence of poor leadership) in their top three human-capital priorities ( But less than 10% of senior managers think that their companies develop leaders effectively (Ashbridge, 2011).

Small team having a meeting

For some time we’ve gone about leadership development in a slightly different way - one that plugs some of the gaps in traditional leadership development methodology. And our approach has helped our clients to consistently achieve leadership and business performance success. We note that others are now advocating a similar approach (e.g. McKinsey & Bersin & Deloitte).

There are four keys to deploying successful #leadershipdevelopment programs:

  1. Intention and Outcome - what is the program for? For example, if it is for organic growth, then leaders that can nurture and build talent are required. Focussing on the outcome and the context inevitably means focussing on a small number of competencies; perhaps 1 to 2 that will drive the desired performance. Competencies are high level clusters of capabilities. For example, a competency like “coaching skills” will include 5 to 7 capabilities. The best programs also tailor a ‘from-to’ program for each participant using some form of leadership analytics.

  2. Couple learning reflection and ‘real’ work - tie leadership development to real on-the-job projects that have a business impact (e.g. improve productivity or deliver projects on-time and on-budget) and where the application will improve the learning. Even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus retaining nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. Furthermore, leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even their most powerful off-site experiences into changed behaviour on the frontline. Companies should strive to make each business project or business performance improvement a leadership-development opportunity as well, and to integrate leadership-development components into the projects themselves.

  3. Make allowance for mindsets - becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour and means adjusting underlying mind-sets. Identifying some of the deep, “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavioural change; one too often shirked in development programs. For example, delegation will not succeed with a “controlling” mindset like “I can’t lose my grip on the business; I’m personally accountable and only I should make the decisions.” A deeply held mindset that, “the only thing that matters is market share” will undermine efforts to improve deal profitability through more effective sales leadership. Staff development will be compromised when you have a “fixed mind-set” vs. a “growth mind-set.” People can change the way they see the world and their values; it requires a combination of learning experiences and processes. Again mindset analytics and mind-set coaching are useful support for tracking the baseline and measuring change.

  4. Measure results - when businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously. Further, when evaluation of leadership development begins and ends with participant feedback; the danger is that trainers learn to play the system and deliver a syllabus that is more pleasing than challenging to participants. One approach is to assess the extent of behavioural change, perhaps through a 180 degree or 360 degree feedback assessment at the beginning of a leadership program and followed by another one after four to six months. Finally, measure the business impact, especially when training is tied to business performance improvement or breakthrough projects. Companies must measure behaviour change and business results to provide evidence to quantify the value of their investment.

Attend to these four keys and your leadership development will yield business results.





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