Leadership Program Design: Are you trapped by your habits?

Leadership Program Design: Are you trapped by your habits?
Written by Carly Newman

When it comes to designing an effective and meaningful leadership development program, what is your typical starting point: Your organisational capability framework? A learning needs analysis? The CEO’s hunch? Inspiration from the latest HBR article? 

In our work, we have the opportunity to observe the various ways OD and HR professionals go about the leadership program design process. In many instances their approach can be categorised into one of four ways:

  •  A capability-driven approach – where the organisation relies upon a capability framework, that includes a prescribed developmental path according to ascending levels of behavioural sophistication. Such an approach is valuable when the organisation has a need for holistic leadership enhancement or the expectations of ‘being a leader’ at different levels in the organisation are not clear.
  • A situation-based approach – where the situations/challenges of the day inform the framework against which the leadership program is designed. This is often some kind of organisational change (such as a restructure, budget cuts, new CEO) and as such the program design is targeted toward the skills needed of leaders within the specific change context.
  • A leader-within approach – where the fundamental premise is: without knowing who you are as a leader, one cannot effectively lead others. This approach puts the individual at the centre of the leadership design challenge and requires program design to be able to draw out idiosyncrasies and enhance self-awareness, to inform personal development foci.
  • The ‘rising star phenomena’ – where the needs of ‘talent’ identified individuals becomes the criteria against which leadership programs are designed. Such an approach can be highly effective for the identified cohort but typically ignores a larger proportion of the workforce. If done in isolation, it runs the risk that the organisation is developing its leaders toward a homogenous prototype modelled on a narrow few.

STOP THINK!

So, what may be driving the adoption of such an approach? How often do we stop and think about the underlying preferences and habits that direct our behaviour?

Or, maybe a better question is: how habitual is your leadership design process? On occasion, we can be guilty of telling ourselves we are looking at issues with a fresh perspective but we are actually falling prey to some well-known cognitive habits. As such we mistake the uniqueness of the situation for a ‘unique’ solution.

When it comes to the design process, some of these habits include:

  • The lens we use – is there a theory/philosophy we tend to favour that colours our views on the ‘right’ solution to every situation?
  • Our biases – have we/our organisation invested in a particular tool/approach in order to establish a standard across our leaders? Do we feel obliged to use it because of our investment?
  • Familiarity – do we tend to go for what has worked for us in the past because it is safe and well-known to us?
  • What is new or trendy – do we get seduced by the latest approach advocated by well-known publications or organisations that claim to be thought leaders, to be seen as ‘cutting edge’?

And there may be more habits that we can fall victim to in the design process. However it is not the habit itself that is the focus of this article, rather the consequence of the habit. That is, the risk of making a poor decision increases when we are led by subjective judgements and not by a robust process that is centred upon determining what will achieve sustainable behaviour change.

It is critical that those responsible for making decisions about the design of leadership programs take a scientific approach each and every time.  This means identifying a clear need and rationale for the program, gathering evidence about the need, experimenting with options and determining a quantifiable impact. Adopting this approach demonstrates that a theoretical ‘bent’ is not required for effective program design – it is OK to be ideologically agnostic.

For the record: all approaches have merit. However there can be a tendency to view them as either/or. Instead, leadership program designers should consider a more agile and blended approach that considers all options, informed by a scientific methodology. Ultimately OD and HR professionals need to focus on the behaviour change and outcomes they want to achieve as the first step, and then research a method that will deliver them.

So, if you are considering shifting your thinking to a more outcome-led (rather than habit-led) approach to leadership program design, you might also be thinking “Gee, it sounds expensive”, perhaps consider the Pareto principle. The principle states that approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In consideration of leadership program design, ignoring this principle creates a risk that we hasten or truncate the design process, (due to time or any of the habits highlighted earlier) yet still expect the output to equate with the quality of a richer design process. Adopting a scientific approach can save time, because your decisions are informed by data, not a best-guess or opinion.

So perhaps the real question is: how scientific is your process for leadership program design?

Here are some tips that may help finesse your approach next time you are charged with a leadership program design opportunity:

  • Start with the end in mind – determine the behaviour change you seek upfront and describe it in measurable terms
  • Check your thinking upfront – try to resist rushing into the design phase too quickly by asking others to test the thoroughness of your approach
  • Be prepared to diversify – take the best of a range of approaches to best suit your leadership development needs
  • Pilot, with purpose – consider investing in a small scale version of your program prior to a whole of organisation launch. Then be prepared to scrap the approach if it doesn’t deliver what you seek.

By challenging your habits and investing more time upfront to consider the available data, you not only create a better program design, you also maximise the best of different approaches to suit your organisation. And wouldn’t that be a great habit to get into?

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