Why companies fail to train future leaders

The person anchoring the initiative should be a thought leader, not a programme coordinator. Photo: iStockphoto

The results of our first global benchmarking study conducted on the Baldrige framework had just come in, at the turn of the century. Software services firm Infosys had only recently listed on Nasdaq in 1999 and was eager to check out the robustness of its management practices for performance excellence on the framework’s key dimensions, including leadership, strategy, customers and knowledge management.

The results drove home the criticality of formal leadership development to create a strong pipeline of leaders to take the organization into the next decade and beyond of blistering growth. The emphasis was, first, on defining and deploying a leadership system and, then, on developing, mandating and institutionalizing leadership training for all levels of leaders. The responsibility for this focused effort was assigned directly to the chief executive officer (CEO); a true reflection of the importance given to leadership development in the framework.

Zoom out from the microcosm of one organization, to the macrocosm. In a recent worldwide survey of nearly 500 CEOs carried out by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 83% of executives felt that leadership development was one of the top three current and future priorities in their organizations. But wait a minute—only 7% felt that their organizations were current and future ready in having a qualified leadership pipeline to address the organizational mandate.

And that is precisely the point. Most organizations realize the need for, and importance of, leadership development and invest considerable financial and time resources on it. And yet the unsolved puzzle in so many cases globally is that programmes that companies so enthusiastically embrace fail to get institutionalized in the DNA of the organization or last in the long haul.

So why do leadership development programmes falter? Research highlights several reasons for this failure. These include the inability to create a context, or the why of the programme, the lack of a culture fostering leadership development, not integrating learnings into real work, not having a proper implementation plan, even not building the “emotional courage in participants” to accept their shortcomings and undertake personal development.

Having seen several organizations both as a practitioner and a consultant, here are the main reasons I think these programmes fail.

u When leadership development is adopted only in letter, and not in spirit.

Organizations do not hesitate to invest significant resources on the infrastructure—the facilities and campus, programmes, even faculty. Yet if the DNA of the organization remains essentially that of command and control mode, with tight decision making at the top, the efforts are bound to yield disappointing results. In contrast, when an organization culture encourages a high degree of empowerment, and allows leaders to make and learn from mistakes, the spirit of leadership development thrives.

u In the “line of fire” of the dreaded budget cuts.

Take the case of a fast-growing company and the formal leadership journey that it embarked on. Two years on, with considerable time and energy invested by leaders, the programme had been designed and was all set to roll. The detailing had been done, including the required proficiency levels for various competencies, for different roles, and the most appropriate development initiatives for each identified leader. Even the financial approvals were in place. And then the next quarter tanked, and financial considerations immediately saw the programme being shelved. Yet, that was probably the time when the programme was needed most to help the leaders steer the organization through turbulent times. It would have been more appropriate to continue with the initiatives while re-engineering the programme’s financial design more innovatively for cost-effectiveness.

u A model championed by one CEO is quietly buried by another.

This burial is even easier if there is, simultaneously, a departure of key stakeholders like the leadership development head or the chief human resources officer. And then, if the board wakes up and pushes the company for a leadership talent strategy, hey presto, we have an all-new framework with organization-wide assessments starting all over again. During high growth phases, initiatives like leadership development are easily consigned to the back-burner. If such cycles become the norm, it would come as no surprise if this blow-hot, blow-cold attitude turned the organization and talent cynical about the programme. Investing a significant portion of time and resources up front on the basis of a needs analysis, and designing a system that can withstand the test of business cycles and CEO transitions, is advisable.

u Initiatives great, target audience—wrong.

When the programme agenda is driven by an entitlement culture epitomized by seniority or favouritism, instead of embracing employees with the highest leadership potential, the output is bound to be flawed. Employees who have hit Peter’s principle need to be firmly passed over in favour of talent with head space for growth lying maybe two levels down the hierarchy. This calls for firmness and courage from those driving the initiative in asking such “seniors” to step aside because they are truly beyond the pale of the initiative.

u Focus on the wrong areas for leadership development.

An organization that recently ran into a profitability crisis found that while earlier leaders were doing the right things, the next generation of leaders were doing only a sub-set of those right things. The company thus ended up being successful in one dimension but weak in others. The company had not consciously identified the leadership behaviours for success around which the next generation of leaders should have been developed.

Further, different roles and times require different types of leadership—project leadership, strategic leadership, change leadership, operational leadership, entrepreneurial leadership, transition leadership, even adversity leadership.

As a corollary, leaders performing those roles need to be measured for and developed in those competencies. A one-size-fits-all programme can only end up being below par.

u Ineffective programme management can trip the initiative.

A strong programme manager will pull it all together. A great design is not enough in itself. Without the seemingly mundane jobs of follow-up, closure and knowledge management, the results will be suboptimal. This should also involve smoothening any tensions that could arise in the triad of coach, boss and employee.

u Articulation-demonstration-reinforcement.

While positioning is important, there can be a loss of credibility if, in the final analysis, those who embrace the initiatives are not seen as being rewarded; in contrast, those who shun or ridicule it are. Take a leap of faith and up the responsibility quotient for the newly minted leaders. Else, it could be a case of “all developed, and nowhere to go”. Reinforce the programme by making individual development plans a living document, reviewing and refining as required.

And finally, please ensure that the person anchoring the initiative is a thought leader. Don’t settle for just a programme coordinator. Because it is the anchor’s knowledge of the secret sauce that goes into making great leaders, and conceptual clarity in designing appropriate interventions, that will ultimately decide the credibility and longevity of the programme.

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile,” said Vince Lombardi, the American football player, coach, and executive. Do ensure that your organization’s efforts to make leaders do not get derailed.