More than anything, evaluation it is about understanding what data you need to collect and collecting this data throughout so that participants can receive rapid, dynamic feedback on their development journey – showing them where they are making progress and where they are not. This is how we develop, writes Anthony Mitchell.
Leadership development is critical to business performance and attracts significant investment. Unfortunately, most of this is poorly spent on programs that look good, but don’t work – primarily because they don’t follow the principles that have been proven to have the greatest impact.
What are these principles? Look at almost any award-winning leadership program, including our work with NSW Health that recently won gold for innovative program design at the international Brandon Hall Excellence Awards, and you’ll find themes of greater focus (fewer topic areas), action (experience not passive education), stretch (novel, uncomfortable challenges) and high-quality rapid feedback.
Here are the five steps any organisation can take to design and deliver a leadership development intervention that will produce the outcomes you seek.
There is no limit to the number of desirable focus areas for a leadership development intervention. But including them all isn’t helpful, as it dilutes the amount of concentration on each one.
- Get serious
I’ve met too many organisations where they say they want a transformational impact, but they aren’t prepared for what it will take. So, before you start, make sure that your commitment matches your ambitions. If it doesn’t, you will start making major compromises from the outset, and you will end up with a half-baked intervention with limited impact.
These compromises may include:
- Can we have something that doesn’t take much participant time?
- Can we have something that is really innovative but doesn’t involve taking any risks?
- Can we have something cheap?
- Can we have something where participants don’t have to be fully engaged (so that they can be answering emails and returning calls at the same time)?
- Can we have something where we don’t have to change anything else about the organisation so that it can align with, and reinforce, what the program is trying to achieve?
These questions will diminish the success of your organisation’s leadership. So, if your stakeholders are already asking such questions and you’re intending to accede to them, stop reading now. If you’re happy to commit to excellence, read on.
- Get clear
The most important design question you can ask is “What do we most want from this intervention?”. One example of this was for a 100,000+ employee organisation which had 21 CEO-equivalent positions, reporting through to a Group CEO. Their goal was to have a pool of leaders who would be job-ready in 3-5 years to step into one of those 21 roles. Once this was understood as the most important outcome, everything else followed. In a different case, a company’s goal was to ensure that the top 200 leaders would be equipped to work together to take the organisation through the most demanding and complex inflection point in its history.
Once these high-level ambitions are known and agreed by all key stakeholders, it’s possible to get more granular in terms of the required mindset, capability and behaviour shifts, as well as the program design implications.
The answers for your intervention could be anything from ‘driving top-line growth as we expand geographically’ to ‘making our company the most innovative in our industry’ to ‘ensuring our digital transformation is a complete success’. The key is that the question is asked and answered, and then communicated so effectively that everyone understands.
Too many leadership development interventions suffer from insufficient discomfort. When asked ‘how often in this process did you feel stretched out of your comfort zone’, the average response should be around 80%.
- Get focused
Many programs, even after getting clear about the required outputs, suffer from a major problem: design overload.
There is no limit to the number of desirable focus areas for a leadership development intervention. But including them all isn’t helpful, as it dilutes the amount of concentration on each one. One of our most staggering findings in evaluating leadership programs is that more than 90% suffer from targeting too many capability areas. The result is that all of these programs then fail to achieve the capability shifts they were aiming for and miss the results that they could and should have delivered.
The key negative impacts are:
- Reduced time per focus area. This is as simple as it sounds. If the program affords 120 hours of participant time, then in crude terms, you can either spend 15 hours each on 8 capabilities or 40 hours each on 3 capabilities.
- Ambiguity and cognitive load. Arguably even more significant than the time difference, is the difference in clarity and focus for the participant.
That doesn’t mean dumbing down a program or avoiding leadership dimensions which are multi-faceted. It’s simply about giving the most important elements dedicated attention, not marginal attention.
- Get active and uncomfortable
Getting active and uncomfortable is critical for participant experience. The implicit goal of any development activity is to move people’s ‘mental representation’ of the capability to a more accurate, complete or sophisticated level than where they were at.
If your goal is for people to evolve their mindsets, capabilities or behaviours, it won’t happen through listening to someone talk, or through a chat with colleagues. It will only happen if you take action – and that action must involve applying the mindset or capability that is in focus. If you are focused on, say, collaboration, then participants must do something that requires them to collaborate – and with a higher level of mastery than they usually demonstrate.
If that activity is to have a sustained effect, it must provide either intensity and/or novelty. Too many leadership development interventions suffer from insufficient discomfort. When asked ‘how often in this process did you feel stretched out of your comfort zone’, the average response should be around 80%. However, in most programs we have evaluated, the typical result is 30% or lower. Most programs focus on elements that are most visible and easiest to deliver (such as typical executive education programs) yet the lack of immersion and stretch means the chance of such programs delivering the desired results is almost zero.
For a successful intervention, you must take people to a place of discomfort (while ensuring that they feel safe to go there). That discomfort can come in very different forms (a time-pressured collaboration, a presentation to a demanding audience, a deeply emotional conversation or a completely out-of-the-box immersive experience), but the test is that participants find it ‘just about manageable’. Broadly, that means that people feel that they are likely to succeed if they give the task full effort but are likely to fail if they do not.
Of course, these ‘heat experiences’ are not enough in themselves. They must be combined with processes that cause people to take on new perspectives and challenge their old assumptions, as well as sense-making to integrate their new learning into their overall way of leading. But without the hands-on heat experiences, none of the other activities will make a difference.
- Get results
All of these steps only count if you are clear on getting results. Quite appropriately, most major leadership development awards today place a high weighting on the quality of evaluation.
Grouped information from leadership interventions must focus on impact, not reactions. Once again, too many programs are focused on what’s visible and easy to collect (e.g. ‘how did you find the venue?’). Indeed, in our evaluation of programs, we find the lowest scoring element overall is most often the program impact measurement. They literally have no idea whether the program worked – all they know is whether participants enjoyed it.
More than anything, evaluation it is about understanding what data you need to collect and collecting this data throughout so that participants can receive rapid, dynamic feedback on their development journey – showing them where they are making progress and where they are not.
This is how we develop. We start at a certain point, we strive to improve, we see what has or hasn’t changed, presented in a way that helps us understand why and how we can continually improve our development. It’s how we learned to walk and talk, and how some of us learned to become great musicians, scientists, public speakers or CEOs.
Leadership development is critical to business performance and attracts significant investment. Unfortunately, most of this is poorly spent on programs that look good, but don’t work
Shifting your mindset from what’s easy to what works requires real commitment, but the difference in value creation is binary – executed well, you can have the strongest leadership cadre in your sector, delivering an incomparable level of competitive advantage.