Ten orthodoxies that distract us from real leadership development

Problem-based Leadership Development Series: Part 2 of 3

Posted by Noah Rabinowitz on April 24, 2019.

In part one of this three-part Problem-based Leadership Development Series, we shared that, despite spending billions on leadership development, it’s losing its focus and returns are negligible. To achieve its potential, the mission of leadership development should get back to the basics. Rather than become increasingly complex, it needs to focus on the same mission as the rest of the organization: to solve problems, create value, change culture, drive results, and build purpose. Anything else is extraneous.

To make this happen, leadership development must undergo a monumental shift away from leadership development content and newness toward deep contextual relevance. To make this shift, we need to flip the following 10 generally accepted practices, or “orthodoxies,” that distract us from leadership development through a combination of innovative, real-world, and agile development strategies—all of them centrally focused on solving actual and relevant business problems.

Ten Orthodoxies That Distract Us from
Executing Leadership Development with a Return

Orthodoxy 1: The “historical” leadership database and normative dataset provide answers for the future.
This is potentially one of the biggest and most prevalent distractions. Leadership databases are continuously promoted and nurtured given that they serve as big commercial assets. However, the database sets that have been created over the years have several fundamental flaws. First, they always look backward and, while context changes at exponential levels, they always move in the forward direction. Just as people and organizations do, the assessment databases, created by this industry for purposes of credibility, struggle to keep up and, in fact, can become quickly irrelevant. Many of these databases from which “answers” are derived are simply capturing information on what was; not what will be.

Also, the promise of isolating factors that are predictive of “successful” leadership is an exercise that is generally not worth the effort—namely because it’s nearly impossible to quantify the real impact a leader has on culture, financials, society, process, and people. A convenient workaround on this, often tried out of necessity, is defining “success” as speed of promotion and relative level of compensation against peers—the two things that they can actually measure and track with their backward-looking databases. But those two factors do not comprise the definition of success. Furthermore, there are many examples of leaders making large (sometimes ridiculous) amounts of money and being promoted very quickly who could hardly be called successful leaders. There are also leaders in sport, military, music, the arts, and medicine where their leadership effectiveness could not be measured at all. As stated in Deloitte’s “Cause Effect” study, “success” should move from accomplishment of goals to unique and lasting impact on a market, product, society, community, or body of work.

Orthodoxy 2: Leadership development is hierarchical and should help people prepare for promotion and moving up the ladder. For decades now, the leadership pipeline construct has guided our leadership development strategies. The primary purpose inside this traditional model is to prepare people for the next level in hierarchy or accelerate their readiness for a “bigger,” “more senior-level” job. This model may no longer be the most relevant because hierarchical lines are blurring, more work is being done in multi-level teams, and hierarchically based cohorts is not a natural organizing principle in terms of how work actually gets done. The linear upward succession construct may be losing its relevance because the one-dimensional upward talent pipeline is not how organizations will need to use talent to stay competitive. The leadership pipeline approach also implies a one-dimensional career model that is not reflective of the future of work and how careers will be managed and developed going forward.

Orthodoxy 3: Learning and work are separate activities. Time in a learning environment is time off the job. A frequent, almost pervasive question that comes up prior to the design or launch of a leadership program, is “How long will they be off the line, away from the job, out of pocket?” This question is an immediate red flag that indicates that a line has been drawn between learning and work and that time away from the desk is being equated to cost. This puts leadership professionals on their heels and at an immediate disadvantage because, out of survival, one of their guiding principles becomes “What is the least effort or expenditure of time we can spend to achieve a certain learning benefit?”
This causes a distraction because the goal shifts from the primary learning objective to mitigating the impact to the business of the time off the line. In addition, there’s an assumption built into the question that time in learning is equal to cost and overhead—that time in learning is not time working. In specific instances, we’ve even heard such extreme mandates as the following: “Our industry is undergoing rapid commoditization. We need to help our people really climb the value chain, build stronger customer relationships, think way more creatively, and partner with new parts of the business. Can we do that in a two-day training because that’s all the time we can dedicate to this?”

Orthodoxy 4: Better tools or intellectual property makes for better leadership development. The industry’s conferences, webinars, books, tools, courses, and publications are all designed to drive leadership organizations, business leaders, and their procurement partners toward one primary idea: you need something new. New assessments, new simulations, new frameworks, new coaching, new training, new learning programs, new technology. The thinking is, “It’s new, different and better, so you need it.” The better mousetrap in leadership development has put layers of new thinking on top of the previous layers, but without ever changing the core or disrupting the root-cause assumptions that make those innovations irrelevant before ever even flipping their “on” switch. New solutions provide incremental changes to exponential problems and are therefore insufficient for today’s challenges. As an analogy, consider a mechanic who wants to grow his or her entire business by simply purchasing a new set of tools. This wouldn’t work. To grow the business, the mechanic would need to change the business model, build capability, improve processes, build relationships, find good talent, and invest in new capabilities.

Orthodoxy 5: Zen garden (off-site) retreats lead to better leadership discussions. All too often, discussions on leadership take place outside of the workplace, in calm and idyllic retreat-like settings that feel insulated from the real world and safe. These environments don’t reflect leaders’ everyday realities. Leadership development and learning may provide one of the last “safe spaces” for leaders. Although leaders do need psychological safety to fully activate their learning and engage in difficult discussion, their development pathway should take place under conditions that resemble the actual reality of the learner: conditions that are high stakes, with accountability and risk built in, which are closer to the actual action and with colleagues they work with regularly and will work with going forward.

Zen garden programs work on an assumption that there is a benefit to removing people from their everyday workplace—that the tranquility of the retreat setting will inspire new breakthroughs in their learning. But, in fact, it is the opposite. Considerable research shows that behaviors acquired in retreat-based settings are quickly forgotten when leaders return to their natural operating environments. Also, removing people from a real-work setting creates a perception that learning is a separate activity from the core of daily business operations. While there is focused benefit to being away for certain parts of a development experience, the playing field for the overall leadership development strategy should be on the job or in relevant external environments. Again, to work as they learn and learn as they work, leaders need to be immersed in an environment where learning can best happen. This tends to be in places close to the action.

Orthodoxy 6: Benchmarking against what others are doing helps us determine what we should do. Before acting on or adopting solutions, leadership professionals are often compelled to benchmark against industry peers to see what others in their competitive space are doing to guide what they should do. This titanic red-herring has roadblocked leadership professionals from reaching their fullest potential and roles within organizations for decades. While technical strategies can be highly specific to industry, leadership solutions are generally not. And, if an industry is lagging due to a prevailing culture and set of norms, benchmarking would reduce the bar for everybody. If anything, benchmarking should be done against the best organizations in the world—regardless of industry, size of company, region, peer group, or any other factor. For example, Barcelona Football Club is one of the best organizations in the world at long-term succession planning. But it’s not an organization that many businesses would consider for purposes of benchmarking. We need to ask why that is.

Also, benchmarking should be performed against the company that best reflects who you want to be, not who you are currently competing against. Benchmarking can significantly slow down the development of leadership solutions and modulate ambition in a backward direction. It’s also generally a time-consuming activity that leads to readouts and reports and can create endless loops of indecision that don’t move the organization toward better outcomes—or sometimes toward any outcome. If benchmarking (for learning purposes) is a priority, it should be done in an agile and iterative way, collecting information as you go—not amassing a large body of data and information before making a first move.

Orthodoxy 7: Mapping what we have today to what we want in the future helps us keep the equity built into the current system. It’s commonplace to see a deck begin with a first slide that details “our understanding of your need.” What follows is then a set of standard solutions pulled from a library of existing tools. So, in this scenario, the logic tree goes as follows: “We understand your business and your leadership needs. We’re listening to you. Your need drives you to do something that we can provide from our library of services. You are undergoing digital transformation, so you need our digital program. You need to grow, so you need our innovation program.”

It may not even require an explanation to find the many flaws in this logic. Anything can be mapped to anything else if the logic to perform the alignment is driven by the desired outcome, not by an actual objective standard. Leadership professionals and their partners on the line should stop accepting the any-to-any mapping and push themselves and their consultants to perform in a more robust manner; the conversation should always start with professionals listening to their partners. And, why does the concept of “mapping” even exist? It has been introduced as a way to encourage taking what you have and turning it into something new—promoting the idea that there is equity in what you have, but that you still need something new.

Orthodoxy 8: Gaining stakeholder alignment on the design of a leadership program is worth the extra time it takes to accomplish that alignment. Leadership programs bring opinions out of the woodwork. Everybody has an opinion on leadership because everybody grew their career in a different way and has a nostalgic fondness for the school of leadership that got them to where they are today. This causes the leadership development organization to want (or feel compelled) to involve everybody in the shaping of the organization’s portfolio of leadership programs. And while select input can be useful and additive, it can also be a distraction and slow down the process. The collection of inputs frequently slows down design cycles and the overall speed of implementation—sometimes even bringing it to a complete halt as one senior leader can bottleneck the whole effort with a contrary view on how to define leadership.

In contrast, finance organizations deploy their expertise differently. You generally don’t see finance professionals setting up focus groups and alignment sessions to determine the definition of gross profit margin, earnings or how the organization is going to measure revenue. And while they do engage outwardly to discuss how to improve these things, they do not spend time discussing how to define them. If leadership professionals feel constantly compelled to involve the business in every aspect of definition, design, build, and delivery, they will actually reach a point of diminishing returns. While it’s important to keep key stakeholders involved and engaged, this can be achieved more effectively by launching, testing, adapting, and bringing them in when results or key questions need to be reviewed.

Orthodoxy 9: Organizations are obligated to help develop managers’ skills to gain competitive advantage.
A massive library of skills-based training offerings has been produced on just about every single topic: influence, communications, negotiations, delegation, strategy, people development, coaching, conflict management, etc. The sourcing, selection and updating of these basic fundamentals programs frequently becomes the primary objective—choose the best content or intellectual property and the rest will fall into place. However, if we acknowledge that content—in and of itself and outside of context—produces little to no impact, then the exercise of sourcing in better content becomes nothing more than a distraction. Skills-based learning assets are potentially necessary, but completely insufficient to produce any kind of material impact. They should therefore be treated that way. Provide skills-based learning assets and offer them for people to use, but do not expend organizational effort on their selection and sourcing. Content is a must-have. It should be made available for employees’ consumption. Tracking mechanisms should be put into place to see what content is getting the best response. But a focus on selecting better content and pushing it out to employees does not move the needle on the challenge of exponential leadership. Also, little concern should be applied to the naming conventions or terminology on management and leadership essentials. It’s clear that managers need to build collaboration, influence, make decisions, build others, set direction, and develop others. The activity of defining and naming these in the organization should be done as quickly as possible so attention can be turned to development and activation.

Orthodoxy 10: Human ego and the desire for power. The last, but potentially most significant, distraction is the impact of the organizational quest for power and control. In organizations worldwide, people climb a ladder through the process of promotion, gaining responsibility, status, control, and compensation as they do so. Leadership development has, for the most part, followed this same approach—creating higher-touch, more prestigious programs for leaders as they grow in seniority. This construct has dominated organizational design and behavior forever. In the current system, humans aspire to become the leader in order to be served and obtain personal gain. In the digital age, exponential leaders become the servants of those they lead. They’re collaborators, keepers of the values, coordinators, and resource finders. Flipping the tenth orthodoxy would require a fundamental change in thinking that junior, younger, and less experienced resources should receive the highest developmental investment, rather than deploying precious resources to those who’ve “earned” their place at the top of the organizational pyramid.

The Challenge is Clear
For decades, these 10 orthodoxies have distracted us from executing effective leadership development. Now that we’re aware of them, we can begin to address them in a meaningful manner that’s focused on solving actual, real, and relevant business problems. In the next installment, we’ll discuss where we should go from here to execute effective leadership development practices. We’ll also cover emerging practices that carry the greatest likelihood of guarding against disruption and readying leaders for the realities of ongoing, exponential change.

Noah Rabinowitz is a managing director in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP and a leader in Deloitte leadership

Contributors: Stacey Philpot, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP; Wayne Robinson, Specialist Leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP; Neil Alger, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP; Michelle Malloy, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

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