Leadership development. It’s not (just) personal; it’s business.

I’m not surprised when I hear CEOs question the value of leadership development programs, especially in these tight economic times.  It’s not that I think leader development is expendable; in fact, it’s not just my profession but also a passion for me, for reasons you’ll understand from my previous blog posts. And I can point to a growing body of research and success stories that demonstrate the link between developing leaders and adding business value.


No, my lack of surprise has to do with the fact that my industry – and the human resources profession as a whole – has a tendency to shoot ourselves in the collective foot by often acting as though leadership development and commercial development run on two separate tracks within an organization.  One track focuses on personal growth, one track focuses on revenue growth.  One is soft and difficult to measure, the other is hard-edged and relentlessly analytical.  Too often, leadership development is almost divorced from the business.


Typically, what happens is that someone, somewhere in the organization, decides that leaders need some development and call in consultants.  This judgment may be accurate but often there’s little evidence to back it up so when consultants ask, quite reasonably, what areas require development clients can only answer with vague generalities.  Consultants then are forced to fall back on generic topics which may not be directly relevant, or of greatest use, to this group or this situation.  Because the consultants have had to guess at the content, the outcomes – if they are measured at all – are sub-optimal. The underlying issues don’t get fixed and the whole merry-go-round starts again.  Consequently, leader development is seen as adding little direct business value and is rarely considered a key way to improve business performance.


I believe that’s wrong.  Leadership development should always be undertaken with one purpose in mind: to drive the business forward.  A leadership development program functions best when it first holds the mirror up to the organization, rather than the individual, and asks “What are the gaps?  What are the opportunities? What has to change?”  Only then can we determine the leadership behaviors and skills that are necessary to take the business forward.


When we divorce the commercial side of why the individual’s role exists in the organization from the development effort, then there is no reason – let alone any urgency – to undertake a leadership development initiative.  It becomes a more expensive version of free coffee: nice to provide in the good times but a cost to be cut when things get difficult in the business.


For all of us, as individuals or organizations, the first step in getting what you want lies in knowing what you want.  Before embarking on a leadership development program, think carefully about the kind of leaders that you need.  What are the skills, knowledge, attributes that will get the business where it needs to be in five years?  Use that as the benchmark against which to measure your existing leaders and then determine how best to bridge the gaps you find.


A lot of time, money and effort go into leadership development – with a little more rigor in the planning phase, that investment can pay off directly in terms of your organization’s bottom line.



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