Now is the Time to Offer Guidance on How to Improve Leadership

Original Article:

By Dave Ulrich • • Co-Founder, The RBL Group, Norm Smallwood • • Co-Founder, The RBL Group and Alan Todd • • Founder, CorpU

Recently, the head of HR from an exceptional company approached us about “refreshing” their leadership development program for 200 of their high potential leaders. The program had been enormously successful in defining and improving the skills of their future leaders, but the CHRO felt that it might be time to upgrade both content and process.

How would you respond to this request?

It is tempting to dive in and review what is taught in the program and how it is taught so that improvements can be made in the leaders who participate.

But, maybe there is a better question to ask: what are the best ways to devote resources to improving leadership? Is it upgrading the content of the leadership program, or something else?

These questions underlie the Organization Guidance System (OGS) we have created. We have shown the pilot results which show the impact of talent and organization initiatives on key results, we now want to report the OGS- leadership pathway results.

Point of View on Leadership

We have spent much of our professional career defining effective leadership through a rather simple formula: effective leadership = attributes * results (see Figure 1). Leaders are effective when they demonstrate the right attributes or competencies that deliver results for key stakeholders (customers, employees, organizations, and investors) in sustainable waysWe have particularly shown the efficacy of this logic in Asian organizations.

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This overall logic may be translated into a leadership brand where the promises made to customers define the expectations of leaders. We have identified six elements to create a leadership brand (see Figure 2). These six elements provide a disciplined process for improvement for those charged with upgrading leaders and installing leadership. This six-element leadership brand logic has been the conceptual framework for and validated in the Top Companies for Leaders work published with Fortune magazine and the framework for upgrading leaders and leadership in organizations of all sizes, industries, life cycles, strategic agenda, and geographies.

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The six elements of leadership brand are summarized in Figure 3 and may each be assessed.

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Report Guidance on Leadership Brand

After 18 months of creating an OGS, we can now report how well companies perform on these six elements (see Figure 4). This figure reports the overall mean (column A), variance (column B), and reliability (column C) of the measures of these six elements. This figure indicates which of the six leadership brand elements score higher (#2 defining what leaders should know and do and #1 clarifying business case for leadership) and which score lower (#5 measuring impact of leadership). The results also confirm that these are valid measures of the six leadership brand elements (standard deviation and reliability scores).

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Guidance on building effective leadership

To move from these leadership brand descriptions (Figure 4) to prescriptions, we offer guidance in Figure 5. This figure shows the relative impact of each of the six elements (rows) on four outcomes we measured in the pilot (columns B, C, D, and E). We used proprietary analytics (variance decomposition) to understand how different leadership initiatives (rows) will deliver different results (note: in the pilot we focused on 4 results; we now have added a fifth, social citizenship).

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The findings in Figure 5 dramatically shift the discussion of building better leadership from what is done to what should be done. While these findings are with a small pilot sample and while we realize that the desired leadership development may vary by context (industry, pace of change) and strategy, they show quite conclusively that to deliver the four results, leadership improvement efforts should focus on #1 building a business case and #6 ensuring a reputation and NOT on #4 investing in leadership.


The implications of this leadership brand guidance are profound. We told the CHRO who approached us that updating the leadership development program (element #4) might not have the desired impact as much as creating a stronger business case for leadership (element #1) and ensuring their leadership reputation in the marketplace (#6).

Now is the time for business and HR leaders to offer rigorous guidance on leadership (as well as talent and organization previously reported).

This OGS is FREE to anyone. Simply visit to get started.


Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.

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