Leadership as a Contact Sport that Cannot be Developed in a Closet

Leadership as a Contact Sport

Leadership is not just for leaders. Sustaining peak performance requires a firm-wide commitment to developing leaders, and the approach must be tightly aligned with objectives.

Those companies that excel at developing leaders tend to achieve higher long-term profitability. Among the many approaches to developing leaders is executive coaching.

We see five types of leadership coaching:

  1. strategic change;
  2. execution,
  3. leadership development,
  4. personal/life planning, and
  5. behavioral modification.

Given the significant capital invested in leadership development, you need to ask, “Does any of this work? And if so, how?” What activities have the greatest impact on increasing executives’ effectiveness? How can leaders achieve positive long-term changes in behavior?

In our search for best practices in leadership development, we reviewed leadership development programs in eight corporations. Although all eight companies had the same basic goals—to determine the desired behaviors for their leaders and to help leaders increase their effectiveness by better aligning actual practices with these desired behaviors—they used different methods. These included offsite training versus onsite coaching, short duration versus long duration, internal coaches versus external coaches, and traditional classroom-based training versus on-the-job interaction. Rather than just evaluating “participant happiness” at the end of a program, they measured the participants’ perceived increase in leadership effectiveness over time. “Increased effectiveness” was not determined by the participants; it was assessed by preselected co-workers and stakeholders.

One variable emerged as central to the achievement of positive long-term change: the participants’ ongoing interaction and follow-up with colleagues.

Leaders who discussed their own improvement priorities with their co-workers, and then followed up with these co-workers, showed striking improvement. This was true whether the leader had an external coach, an internal coach, or no coach. It was also true whether or not the participants went to a training program. The development of leaders is a contact sport.

Leadership Development

Eight Approaches

Each of the eight companies customized its leadership development approach to suit its specific needs. Five of the eight focused on the development of high-potential leaders. The other three included almost all managers. Some companies used traditional classroom-based training. Participants would attend an offsite program and receive instruction on what the desired characteristics were for leaders, why these characteristics were important, and how participants might better align their own leadership behavior with the desired model.

Other companies, by contrast, used continuing coaching, a method that relied on regular interaction with a personal coach. And some companies used both offsite training and coaching.

Each company had reviewed the challenges its leaders would face and developed a profile of desired leadership behaviors, aligned these desired behaviors with the company vision and values, and developed a 360-degree feedback process to help leaders understand the extent to which their own behavior (as perceived by co-workers) matched the desired behavior for leaders.

The developing leaders:

  1. Review their 360-degree feedback with an internal or external consultant;
  2. Identify one to three areas for improvement;
  3. Discuss areas for improvement with key co-workers;
  4. Ask colleagues for suggestions on how to increase effectiveness in selected areas;
  5. Follow up with co-workers to get ideas for improvement; and
  6. Have co-workers complete a confidential custom-designed “mini-survey” three to 15 months later.

Each participant received summary feedback from three to 16 co-workers. Colleagues were asked to rate the participants’ effectiveness in the selected behaviors, the participants’ leadership effectiveness, and the degree of follow-up they had with the participant.

When we explored the results, we saw that personal contact mattered greatly. All eight companies measured the frequency of managers’ discussions and follow-up with co-workers and compared this measure with the perceived increase in leadership effectiveness, as judged by co-workers. “Follow-up” refers to efforts that leaders make to solicit continuing ideas for improvement from their co-workers. Participants who followed up were viewed by their colleagues as far more effective than the leaders who did not. And, leaders who had “frequent” or “consistent” interaction with co-workers were seen as having improved their effectiveness far more than leaders who had little or no interaction with colleagues.

Leadership is a relationship. And the most important participants are the leader and the colleague (not coach and coachee). Most leaders in this study work in knowledge environments—in companies where the value of the product or service derives less from manufacturing and more from the processing and creation of information to solve problems. Peter Drucker has said, “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” Leaders who ask for input are seen as increasing in effectiveness.

Ask and Receive

When co-workers are involved in leadership development, their leaders tend to become more effective. Leaders who ask for input and then follow up are seen as people who care. Co-workers might infer that leaders who don’t respond to feedback must not care.

Most leadership development focuses on an event—a training program, motivational speech, or offsite meeting. However, real leadership development involves a process that occurs over time. It’s like physical fitness. Imagine having out-of-shape people sit in a room and listen to a speech on exercising, or watch tapes on how to exercise. These people will still be unfit a year later. Fitness involves engaging in exercise. As Arnold Schwarzenegger has said, “Nobody ever got muscles by watching me work out!” So, too, with leadership development.

Leadership Development Program

Leadership involves a reliance on other co-workers to achieve objectives. Who better than these same co-workers to help the leader increase effectiveness? Indeed, the executive coach is like a personal trainer. The trainer’s role is to “remind” the person being trained to do what he or she knows should be done. Good trainers spend far more time on execution. Most leaders already know what to do. Their challenge is not understanding the practice of leadership: it is practicing their understanding of leadership. Leadership is a relationship, not between the coach and the “coachee,” but between the leader and the colleague.

Leaders learn best from the people in their own environment, particularly in a cross-cultural context. Successful leadership development programs encourage executives to adapt the universal principle of followup and the frequency of such conversations to fit the unique requirements of their culture. In no country do we find people who think, “I love it when you ask me for my feedback and then ignore me.”

Also vital is the contact between the leader and the coach. Both internal and external coaches can make a positive difference. One reason coaching can be so effective is that it may inspire leaders to follow up with their people. Agilent Techlnologies, for one, found a strong correlation between the number of times the coach followed up with the client and the number of times the client followed up with co-workers. The coach, however, need not be internal.

Three variables determine whether to use an internal HR coach: time, credibility and confidentiality.

In many organizations, internal coaches lack the time they need for ongoing interaction with the people whom they are coaching. In some cases, they many not seem as credible as trained development experts. In other cases, especially those that involve HR personnel filling multiple roles, there may appear to be a conflict of interest between a professional’s responsibilities as coach and as evaluator. If these perceptions exist, then external coaches may be preferable to internal coaches.

We also found that coaching by telephone works about as well as feedback or coaching in person. However it’s done, follow-up is the sine qua non of effective leadership development. So, measure the effectiveness of your leadership development initiatives, and not just the employees’ satisfaction with them. Executives may love the training, but not use it, or improve because of it. When participants know that measures of program effectiveness are slated, they have a higher commitment. Follow-up measurement creates a focus on long-term change and personal accountability

Continual contact with colleagues regarding development is so effective it can succeed even without a formal program. Agilent, for example, produced excellent results, even though its leader received coaching that was disconnected from any training. Changing behavior is about learning from those around us, and then modifying our behavior on the basis of their suggestions.

If the leader can reach out to co-workers, listen and learn, and focus on continuous development, both the leader and the organization will benefit. By following up with colleagues, a leader shows a commitment to self-improvement—and a determination to get better.

Posted in Management and Leadership

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