Learning & Development

Empowering Leaders Through Training and Development: 4 Mistakes to Avoid

When you hear the term “effective leadership,” what comes to mind? Here are a few considerations to start the list: inspiring, trustworthy, strategic, empathetic, customer-focused, decisive, and humble.

Do you see a problem with this list? Effective leadership spans a broad spectrum of interpersonal skills, personality characteristics, and business-oriented competencies. Unfortunately, because of the gap between where their leaders are and the “ideal” effective leader, most organizations underestimate the training, coaching, and development leaders require to bridge it. So, when it comes to leadership development, where should we start, and what should we prioritize? It is a challenging question that I would like to examine by exploring four mistakes organizations make in training and coaching their leaders.

Mistake #1: Assuming Key Contributors Make Great Leaders

Two recent conversations I had with leaders illustrate a problem with leadership preparation. In the first conversation, I spoke with the CEO of a scaling tech company. She shared that in their efforts to grow, they promoted strong individual contributors to leadership positions, only to find out that their struggles in those new roles not only contributed to challenges within the organization but also led to their own resignations. The CEO was bemoaning not only losing their leaders and the additional challenges the leaders created but also losing their former strong individual contributors. It was a triple threat to her vulnerable company! And adding insult to injury, it happened more than once!

When I mentioned this story to a senior director at another company, he sighed and said, “Welcome to 40 years of (not) learning in our organization.” So, while today the company has a powerful leadership development program he was able to take part in to help his personal leadership journey, the many decades preceding were riddled with similar issues when promoting their most prominent scientists to leadership positions.

I wish these stories were unique. However, the reality is that they are all too common. For example, a recent survey conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies of more than 400 managers showed that only 39% of new managers received any leadership training, just 34% had received mentoring, and 31% received coaching. I continue to be amazed that every day, a thousand leaders are promoted with little more credentials than the ability to do the job they are asked to lead others in doing, but we would never hire employees without education and experience in the field we are placing their trust in.

While no organization would even consider hiring someone for a key contributor position without the education and experience in the domain or function of the role, every day, these same contributors are promoted to positions of leadership with no formal training or development to be successful in that new leadership role. The resulting loss doubles because we lose an effective contributor and gain an ineffective leader, negatively impacting other productive contributors.

Investing in training and developing leaders needs to be a baseline, especially regarding the shift from expert to expert leader who directly impacts other experts. According to a Gallup poll focused on American companies, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement, and 50% have left a job to get away from their manager at some point in their career.

So how can an organization effectively transition key contributors into leadership roles?

Differentiate leadership paths from subject matter expert paths with distinct qualifications for each. When considering the promotion of a subject matter expert to a leadership position, require and provide preparatory training and on-the-job coaching during the person’s transitionary period. Furthermore, consider leadership positions in which influence precedes ownership. That means giving leadership opportunities that don’t involve managing people but rather managing domain or functional responsibilities. These types of leadership opportunities provide experience and development in slightly less risky endeavors.

Mistake #2: Assuming that Training and Coaching on Leadership Skills Will Help

I was coaching a product management director for a software product company. She held responsibility over multiple products, each of which had product owners responsible for the strategic direction and execution of product development and release. Thus, she held quite a bit of responsibility in the organization, caring for and nurturing the core offerings their company depended upon and other leaders in charge of them.

Throughout her leadership career, she participated in several educational programs, including instruction on improving strategic direction, communication, and servant leadership. She prided herself on her servant leadership style, providing freedom and empowerment to her people and teams. Overall, she was an effective leader. However, through 360 feedback, she learned that her voice was not strong enough and that her people and teams were feeling a bit “in the fog” and unsure of their direction and approach. As a result, they requested more direction from her. And she struggled with that shift based on what she had been taught as the best way to lead.

Through our coaching engagement, we explored this aspect of her leadership style, what she had been taught, how she was applying it, and the feedback she received from her interactions. We explored the “why” behind her choice of servant leadership and what it meant to her to be a servant leader. For her, the servant leader role meant “her role as a leader is to serve.” I asked her what the role of servant meant to her. She quickly responded that it meant empowering others, supporting and encouraging them, letting them shine, and removing blockers in their way. It was obvious this was her passion and focus. So, I asked another question: “What is your role as a servant to lead? What does that mean to you?” After a few moments, her eyes lit up—an “aha” moment. “Oh, I see what I’m missing: leadership!” I asked what that meant to her. She responded with enthusiasm: “Direction, focus, priorities, clarity, challenge, and inspiration.”

Again, while this may seem like an isolated instance, in reality, leaders are often trained in skills like communication, strategy, listening, and servant leadership. However, these leadership skills are only a single dimension of leadership effectiveness. We call such skill-building a horizontal development. It’s like adding more tools to your toolbox. Knowing if, when, and how to use specific tools is the key to effective leadership.

Leadership awareness is another dimension. We call this vertical development—self-awareness, situational awareness, social awareness, system awareness, etc. Leadership agility is yet another dimension. We call this situational adaptiveness, whereby leaders demonstrate “in-the-moment” awareness along with intent and choice to leverage particular skills that need to be applied. What this demonstrates is that leaders who are taught skills are not often taught the awareness and adaptiveness of if, when, and where to apply them.

Returning to our example leader above, we discussed how her servant leader style “shows up.” We call this leadership presence. She described sitting at the back of the room on the side. She described keeping a low profile in meetings to let others shine in the spotlight. We discussed experiments with her awareness and presence in meetings. She formulated an experiment to sit in a different chair at the table—one that is more central. She formulated an experiment to sit up more and use more direct eye contact. She formulated an experiment to stand up once in a while to facilitate a discussion at the whiteboard.

She had the skills. However, she lacked the awareness and adaptiveness to apply them appropriately and situationally. Now armed with this new information, she improved her presence and balanced her servant leader style to include both the servant and the leader.

So, besides skills, what should leaders be taught and coached on?

While leadership skills are necessary, they are insufficient for effective leadership development. Leadership development programs must provide a more holistic approach that broadens leaders’ perspective of themselves and their work view. This holistic approach includes broadening their time horizons and systems perspectives, their relationship to and influence on culture and values, their awareness and real-time adaptiveness of mindset and bias, their emotional triggers and reactions, and more. Leadership is as much a science of human relationships and interactions as a science of business processes and strategies.

Mistake #3: Assuming Trained Leaders Can or Will Apply Their Learning

Hundreds of leaders start or restart a journey to become leaders every year. In some cases, individual leaders take on a personal initiative to improve their leadership competency. In other cases, the organizations that leaders work for sponsor their learning and development journey. The start of the journey is not the problem. It’s on the journey where trouble lurks. Leaders require an environment and peers on a similar journey to walk alongside.

A growth mindset can help leaders become more self-aware and situationally adaptive to be more effective in complex and fast-paced environments. When leaders attend a leadership training program and have the mindset that they are too busy to “do their homework,” they miss out on putting their learning into practice. Often, the short-term gain might seem overwhelming; they think “I have too much to do this week, so I can’t complete the assignment” rather than “Prioritizing experimenting with this new learning will help my personal and leadership growth, which will, in turn, benefit my team and company,” reframing for the long-term benefit. Leaders’ inability to apply learnings from their training programs to their workplace with the support of others on a similar path weakens their development and simplifies their training program to just a class they observed from a distance.

While it is easy to blame this on the individuals—and, honestly, they do bear a significant portion of responsibility—when it comes to applying new leadership training, organizations have equal blame! Leaders on a journey to become better leaders in a company where their new leadership approaches are not recognized, nurtured, or supported will quickly fade to peer pressure and not apply their learning.

Furthermore, organizational cultures in which the training and development that leaders are experiencing and becoming inspired by do not match the culture they work in may become hypocritical. In these environments, leaders who do NOT exhibit these newly developed characteristics are recognized, rewarded, and possibly promoted. This signals what is truly valued within the organization.

Research Statistics indicates that while 60% of individuals set personal improvement goals, only 8% of them achieve those goals. When individual leaders join a training and development curriculum in our programs, they are placed in small cohorts (a group of four to six leaders guided by a coach). The cohort creates a support system when personal and/or organizational impediments confront the leader, as well as creates an environment to challenge and support each other when they struggle or get stuck. It further provides a safe environment to practice and coach others.

So how can an organization effectively foster an environment for newly trained leaders to apply their learning?

  1. Provide training and coaching support systems for leaders entering a new journey. Provide them with shared experiences, and enable them to connect, share, and support each other beyond the initial program. These may include peers on the journey and/or mentors who have previously attended.
  2. Provide training and coaching over and through time at work. Training in a bubble is fun but often doesn’t match the reality of work culture. Training and coaching more incrementally allows leaders to learn, apply, get feedback and coaching, reapply, get more feedback and coaching, etc. It is a journey.
  3. Evaluate your work culture in relation to the training and coaching being provided to leaders. Any variances between them should be noted for the leaders within the training and coaching program and influential leaders touching them upon their return.

Mistake #4: Assuming Training and Coaching Individual Leaders Is Sufficient

Leadership has two key parts to the system: the leader as an INDIVIDUAL and the leadership TEAM. That’s right. There are some things leaders can do by themselves, like improve conversations, listen, coach, empower, assign work, set direction, etc., but there are just as many things most individual leaders CANNOT do in isolation, like change policies, change direction, reset values, shape the culture, align metrics, and more. Because of the complexity and interdependencies at work, most of the real change requires collaboration and co-creation across functions and departments.

Leadership teams need training and coaching as much as, or more than, individual leaders. True organizational change and agility happens when leaders align, focus, and accelerate their efforts toward shared goals.

To illustrate this point, we hosted 35 senior leaders who shared responsibility for a particular business. While their historical business performance was strong, they also recognized the winds of change and technology disruption in their industry were early signs of concern. They recognized the need for speeding innovation but not necessarily a path forward to shape a culture to enable it. Through shared education and a new common language, they were able to align their efforts to overcome this challenge. Like rowing on a crew team, performance comes as much from leadership team alignment as from individual strengths.

Over the following 3 years, this leadership team not only sped their pace of innovation but also were recognized by their industry in their innovative approach and processes—a repeatable recipe for ongoing success. It is difficult to imagine similar results through individual leadership development programs.

So, besides individual leadership training and coaching, what should leaders be exposed to?

Leadership teams must have shared training and coaching opportunities. Due to the vast complexity of the organizational landscape with strategy and execution, structures and processes, culture and values, controls and creativity, competition and collaboration, performance and health, and more, leadership teams typically become biased toward a particular way (e.g., culture) of doing things. Exposing them to new ideas and aligning focus can take a latent leadership team to a new inspired direction for agility and change.

The Bottom Line

Leadership training, development, and coaching is critical to the effectiveness of leaders and the organizations they serve. Leaders represent and shape their cultures, whether they are aware of it or not. Every leader shapes culture, and the opposite is equally true: An organization’s culture shapes the leaders who operate within it. The culture will help (or hinder) individual and organizational efforts to develop better leaders. If you want to empower leaders, upgrade your organization’s leadership training and development program by first preparing key contributors to transition to human leadership roles effectively. Then, train and coach leaders beyond skills to mindset, emotions, and behaviors. Enable leaders to apply and practice newly trained techniques and approaches. Finally, provide leadership team training and coaching for shaping a shared change.

Pete Behrens is a leadership coach and the founder of the Agile Leadership Journey, an organization, a curriculum, and a community devoted to improving leaders and their organizations. As an engineer by profession, Behrens now guides leaders and organizations to be more focused, responsive, and resilient to change. He is the creator and host of the (Re)Learning Leadership podcast, and along with expert guides and his guests, he explores leadership challenges, discussing paths for new awareness and growth for leaders to improve their leadership in highly complex and rapidly changing environments.

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