The not-so-obvious reason why long development programs are great

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 23 September 2019

Longer engagement, say 6, 12 or 24 months leadership development programs, are rewarding. Challenging, but highly rewarding for the participants, the employees, and for the business.

I think that everyone can agree on that. Focusing long term on development is better than a one-time workshop or inspirational talk. But why is it so? Is it obvious that having a longer lasting focus on group-based development is beneficial?

Apart from the obvious goals for the leadership development programs (the goals that are mutually agreed and used for the kickoff, the flyers, and the campaign material), two often overlooked outcomes are reached (spoiler alert): A routine for reflection, and psychological safety.

The obvious reason

Every leadership development program is launched to solve a problem or to exploit a possibility. It has to – that is the business reason for it. From time to time, we run into requests for education or training projects that “just should give the leaders some new tools and better skills” without knowing exactly why. Luckily those cases are rare.

Typically, modern development programs are launched to approach business challenges like these:

  • To nurture innovation in the organization
  • To instill an agile approach to decision making and to technological changes
  • To adapt the organization to an updated business model
  • To attract and retain the right employees
  • To ensure that the leaders are modern leaders that can collaborate and encourage the employees to collaborate too
  • And more

There is always a business or cultural reason for doing it.

That also means that measurements and feedback loops can be created. We can observe the progress of those areas by either direct measurement or indirect perception.

1: Get inspired, from books, talks, podcasts, or social media – or your network.

2: Understand and document your reason for engaging in the development program.

3: Engage your organization.

4: Make a plan.

5: Translate it to context.

6: Execute the elements in the development program.

7: Measure.

8: Hand-over and agree on follow-up.

The iterative approach to development programs

Such development programs are by design created in iterations, as shown in the illustration. A hugely underestimated and overlooked mechanism is the iterative part: Make sure to establish the back-flow from “translation” to “planning”, from “implementation to translation”, and from “measuring to reasoning”. This is where the adaptability kicks in, and ensures that the 12 or 24 month program will have continuous feasibility.

When working with modern leadership development like this, being responsive to how the activities and dialogue are received is crucial for the progress, desirability, feasibility and viability of the investment.

As the motto for lean startup goes: Build-measure-learn

The typical challenges circle around grasping the future of work and leadership. That covers business agility, digital leadership, leading digitization and staying relevant to the market. It also looks at embracing gig workers, staying relevant to talent, collaboration internally and across borders, and employee engagement.

Business benefits that have been harvested from that include:

  • Updated and relevant business model (documented via financial data and customer feedback)
  • Faster innovation cycles (documented via qualitative interviews)
  • Lower hierarchies and tighter network (documented via Organizational Network Analysis)
  • Less sick-days (documented via HR data)
  • Higher retention (documented via HR data)
  • Higher happiness-rating (documented via weekly and annual survey)

The reasons are obvious. It makes the business and culture modern and healthy.

The not-so-obvious reason

During such a leadership development program, normal habits are broken. We have monthly full-day workshops, “homework” in the local departments and teams, peer-to-peer tasks or peer-to-peer mentoring, and organizational-wide cultural workshops. It’s a consistent work with an inertia that fits with the organizational change-readiness.

Most of all, it’s a facilitated setting for conversations, dialogue, and reflection. Yes, we work with modern thinking, the contemporary mindset of modern business and future work, and with specific tools and mechanisms, that are directly applicable.

But a strong focus is on the meta learning: The single-loop or double-loop reflection

  • What is your dialogue about?
  • How are you talking to each other?
  • What words do you use?
  • What tone-of-voice are you using?
  • Are you listening to reply or to understand?
  • Do you learn AND teach?
  • What makes you curious?
  • What do you appreciate about yourself and about your peers?
  • What will you keep, and what will you try regarding your dialogue – and your leadership collaboration?
  • And, how does that make you feel?

Massive, massive learning takes place here, as especially the double-loop learning is rarely facilitated in the daily and tactical life of a management team or organization.

And that has a spillover effect to the second benefit of leadership development programs: Nurturing psychological safety in the management team; Gradually establishing a conversation culture, that acknowledges questions, skepticism, mistakes and learning moments, being anxious, safety for taking risks, respect and accept, being yourself and showing your personal traits and flaws – without fear.

Those facilitated and intense dialogues combined with a modern approach and mindset towards organizational inclusiveness and fellowship paves the way for “pumping out fear”, as Richard Sheridan, CEO for Menlo, describes it.

How to approach the conversation

The building blocks for the conversations are centered around four questions, that are part of describing the framework for your leadership:

  • WHY are you here?
  • WHAT are your goals, as leaders?
  • WHO are your, as leaders?
  • HOW do you plan to get there?

The “you” above must be answered both as you = the individual leader and you = the leadership team.

The conversations become focus points for the single-loop and double-loop reflections, that in turn lead to nurturing psychological safety.

Sustainable leadership is both business and people

Sustainable leadership focuses on the 4 P’s of the future of work, and New Ways of Working:

Purpose, People, Planet, and Profit.

A well-designed, well-facilitated leadership development program is great, as it supports exactly those four P’s.

It focuses on the challenges and opportunities in the business world, strengthens the culture, and facilitates a trustful conversation with candor. From that comes some obvious benefits, and some not-so-obvious. The first part is business related, the second part is human.

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