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The beginner’s guide to leadership development

By Jan Bailey and Mike King of the Leadership Trust

Imagine that you are Training Manager for an organisation that is the market leader in its particular field. Recently it has been brought to your attention that something is amiss.

Your HR Director has been tracking employee satisfaction levels, which have been declining. Orders for the business have been dropping and staff turnover levels have increased to 40%.

Exit interviews with leavers identify no specific cause, just a general level of demotivation and unhappiness with the organisation as a whole and with the qualities of those who occupy positions of authority within the business: “Nobody seems to understand where the company is heading,” complained one leaver; “I never get any feedback on how I’m doing,” said another; “The Managers just seem to be in meetings all the time, but we never know what they’re talking about”, commented yet another.

The problem, according to your HR Director, seems to be a lack of leadership – your managers are, after all, primarily technical people who have, due to their abilities in this area, been promoted to positions of authority. She has asked you to look into developing a suitable leadership development programme which she hopes will reduce levels of employee attrition, increase staff satisfaction levels and will help to ensure that the company continues to thrive in the future. So where do you start?

You might feel tempted to rush off to the internet, type “leadership training” into Google and book a course with one of the market leaders. But it is worthwhile, before you do this, spending some time considering what exactly you mean by the word “leadership” and what “leadership” means for your organisation. What exactly is it that you are trying to achieve? Our advice is to be sure you know where you are trying to get to before you start your journey. To be fair, any leadership development provider worth its salt will encourage you to do this before taking your booking.

In our view, leadership can and should exist at all levels within an organisation – although the nature of that leadership may change, depending on the position of authority, or otherwise, occupied by the leader. For example, at the Board or top executive level, leadership is likely to be more strategically focused: what’s the future vision of the organisation, what values do we want the organisation to follow, how will we inspire our people to work towards the vision, and so forth. At middle management level, the leadership issues will probably be more pragmatic and results-focused and will depend on motivating and leading teams towards the achievement of specific goals. Ideally, throughout the organisation leadership will be operating between individuals on an inter-personal level. This kind of leadership is typified by open and honest communication between individuals, regardless of the particular “position” they occupy in the hierarchy.

The point is that you will need to identify what effective leadership means for your organisation, where you are in relation to that in terms of the leadership currently demonstrated and the nature of the gap which exists (assuming there is one) between where you currently are and where you want to be. Various tools are available to help you to do this. You could:

  • Approach external consultants
  • Conduct one-to-one interviews with a range of people within the organisation
  • Consider using a 360o tool like The Leadership Trust’s Leadership Audit

Whichever method, or combination, you choose, you should finish up with a good analysis of the gap you are trying to close – where you want to end up - which will then form the basis of your leadership development programme objectives.

Perhaps the most important element in the success of any development programme aiming to change the leadership of an organisation is that there is buy-in from the very top level on two counts. This can be done by launching the programme and clearly stating where it fits with the CEO’s or MD’s other priorities. Firstly there must be buy-in in the sense of commitment to invest time and money. Secondly, those at the top must lead by example, if not by attending the programme themselves (which would be ideal) at least by coaching and listening to those who have attended and by being prepared to look at themselves and change their way of operating, if that is identified by the programme attendees as being necessary.

Having identified your objectives and obtained buy-in from the top person, there will be a number of other things to consider.

  • Do you want to introduce a blanket solution, for example a company-wide leadership development course run by one supplier
  • Would you prefer to identify training programmes for particular levels of employee or perhaps even on an individual basis?

The blanket solution has the benefit of being easy to administer and is useful in creating a common language for the organisation – particularly useful in terms of vision, values and goal setting. The disadvantages are that it may not meet individual needs and, if your supplier doesn’t live up to expectations, you will have placed all your eggs – perhaps inextricably - in one basket.

Conversely, individual leadership development programmes may be cumbersome to administer and may possibly result in mixed messages being received. A multi-layered development strategy which combines elements of company-wide provision, coupled with specific team, tier or individual interventions is probably the best solution. Careful consideration will need to be given to the right design for your particular organisational circumstances. The Leadership Trust, and other good quality providers, will help you to look at all of these issues carefully before coming up with the most appropriate solution for you.

Once you have identified your leadership development objectives, as outlined above, and assuming you have the buy-in of your top team, you will enter the design and implementation stage of the programme. You can do this internally, if you have the resources and expertise, or buy-in expertise externally. I would, naturally, suggest you use The Leadership Trust to help you, but there are a number of other very good suppliers out there who may also be able to assist.

Whichever method you choose, always keep in mind your objectives and take time to check on a regular basis, as the programme progresses, that these are being met. If not, adjustments to the programme may need to be made. Once again, any reputable training provider would be happy to build this on-going review process into a training programme design, together with a joint post-course analysis and evaluation of the extent to which the objectives have been met. We tend to stay in close contact with our clients for many years – be wary of those organisations who will sell you an “off-the-shelf” package and wave you bye-bye on completion.

Effective leadership has proven results, from the release of employees’ potential to improved financial performance at the bottom line. A well-designed and thought out leadership development programme will make a huge difference to the performance of your team members, managers and your organisation. In terms of the scenario painted at the beginning of this article, it may be just what you’re looking for.

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© Copyright 2005 The Leadership Trust (Training) Limited. Reproduced with permission. Article by Jan Bailey and Mike King (with thanks to Kevin Johnson). Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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