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Leadership development are we clear on the intent

The effectiveness of leadership development interventions

By Sabine Vinck . 01 January 0001

The effectiveness of leadership development interventions is a perennial question most organisations ask themselves. 


Sabine Vinck, Associate Dean of Executive Education at London Business School, explores the merits of individual and organisational leadership interventions, and proposes a new way of working that ensures these interventions achieve their aims.



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The effectiveness of leadership development interventions is a perennial question most organisations ask themselves. Some executives are strong supporters, while others are more sceptical, pointing to the difficulty of evaluating whether these interventions really achieve their aims.


What we know for sure is that companies across the world continue to report that improved leadership is critical to their future success. So, corporate learning functions and business schools must identify even better ways of addressing leadership dilemmas and demonstrate the value of their work.


One answer lies in all parties being clearer and more specific in articulating the objectives of Leadership Development initiatives. We must understand what participants will do differently and the impact that behavioural change will have on the organisation.  Clearly identified objectives align expectations and provide a common base to evaluate return on investment.


My four years at the helm of Executive Education at London Business School have convinced me that more clarity is often required when establishing whether a request for improved leadership is intended to address individual or organisational development needs.  Both are important but they must be tackled in different ways. We have worked hard to make that distinction clear in what we do.


Individual leadership: ensuring leadership “fitness”


Individual leadership interventions aim to develop an individual’s ability to achieve business objectives with and through others, almost irrespective of what these objectives are. Drawing on a sporting analogy, individual leadership programmes provide leaders with the level of “fitness” required to play any number of sports, or leadership roles.


Executives must remain focused on “staying fit” throughout their careers, especially in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, where an even greater level of leadership effectiveness is required. It is not surprising that individual leadership interventions are in high demand. Attracting 300 participants a year, Essentials of Leadership is one of the most successful individual leadership open programmes in our portfolio.  A number of our corporate clients are also experiencing strong internal demand for the custom individual leadership development solutions we developed with them, sometimes a number of years ago.


Individual leadership interventions typically start with an initial self-awareness exercise, which helps participants gain a greater understanding of who they are and how they represent themselves as leaders. A combination of thought-leadership, experiential activities, coaching and practice is then used to enhance the participants’ skill set. Impact is measured by a second assessment exercise 12 – 18 months later.  Focused on individual leaders and their immediate sphere of influence, these interventions are often stand-alone solutions.


We are now finding that while absolutely necessary, these interventions may not always be sufficient. They need to be complemented by organisational leadership initiatives, which aim at developing leadership in support of a firm’s strategic objectives and culture. To go back to my earlier sport analogy: individual leadership interventions deliver general fitness, while organisational leadership solutions focus on getting a group of leaders to win a specific match.


Organisational leadership: accelerating business performance


Organisational leadership interventions target the one or two things leaders could do better or differently, in order to improve a company’s performance at a point in time.


These initiatives have an individual component to them, as organisational impact can only be achieved by individual leaders changing their behaviours. However, the intent is different. We are not developing leaders to improve their general level of leadership fitness; we are developing them to address a very specific business challenge. It is leadership development in context.


In my experience, when CEOs say they need “better leadership” in their organisations, they usually mean organisational leadership but they are not always explicit in saying so. As a result, learning providers may end up delivering an individual leadership programme that is not necessarily focused on addressing the organisation’s business challenges. That pitfall can be avoided by remaining in the diagnostic phase of the design process until there is a common understanding among all stakeholders of what leaders are expected to do differently after the intervention.


For example, in a London Business School client engagement, the discipline of remaining in the diagnostic phase until all stakeholders visualised the programme outcomes, turned an initial request for an all-encompassing individual leadership programme into an organisational leadership initiative. Leaders needed to take more initiative to increase the company’s strategy execution speed. This is what their CEO really meant by “better leadership”.


Developing organisational leadership interventions: a new way of working


The notion of leadership development in the context of what a firm must achieve to remain competitive has quite profound implications for the design, implementation and measurement of organisational leadership interventions.


Defining the desired outcomes


These interventions essentially become an element of an organisation's execution engine or organisational transformation. Therefore, the executive team is best placed to identify which levers can be pulled to accelerate performance and it must offer essential input into the intervention's design process. Helpful questions to focus on include:


1. What does success look like for this intervention? What specific business outcomes are you hoping to achieve?


2. What would your customers be saying about the organisation and how it has changed?


3. What would leaders be doing better or differently if the company were at its peak performance?


4. If you had to pick the one thing that leaders could do differently to improve performance, what would it be?


5. What does this mean for you, the executive team? How will you be supporting the initiative?


Concrete and specific answers to these questions ensure stakeholders have a common picture of the intervention’s outcomes, increasing the chance of achieving them. They also highlight any misalignment in the senior team, a common barrier to success. Finally, they ensure that the intervention’s objectives are achievable.


Leadership development initiatives invariably try to do too much. Achieving behavioural change takes time and in general, focusing on one or two goals adds the most value to an organisation.


Integrating the programme with what the organisation already does


To support specific strategic needs effectively, organisational leadership initiatives must be integrated with an organisation's practices.  The more integrated they are, the greater the impact. We work with clients to identify these touch points as part of the design process. Techniques we have used successfully include:


  • Framing the programme’s narrative in the company’s strategic discourse and involving the leadership team in making that link. 


In one instance, the CEO set the scene by outlining the strategy, the organisational changes he expected and how he hoped the programme would achieve them. As the programme progressed, he personally reiterated the take-aways and described how these were coming to life in the organisation. He highlighted examples where the senior team acted differently as a result of the programme. His involvement in supporting participants to visualise success had an immensely positive impact.


  • Weaving line management conversations and an individual's business activities into the programme.


In an existing design, the learning journey starts with a conversation between a participant and her line manager. The pair works together to identify one or two business challenges the participant will address during the programme and to define a set of successful outcomes. The participant then uses these challenges as context to bring the programme’s key take-aways to life. Regular checkpoints with the line manager ensure the programme remains integrated with the participant’s work reality.


  • Using the intervention as a mechanism to drive strategic priorities and promote experimentation.


In our Global Business Consortium programme, the CEOs of the member organisations set annual “CEO challenges” to be worked on by their representatives during the six-month learning journey. They attend a final session with the participants to refine the proposed solutions and guide their implementation.


Integrating a programme into wider business activities requires buy-in and alignment from internal stakeholders and significant strategic thinking, planning and coordination from the corporate learning function. It can only be delivered in close partnership with the business. We ascertain the ideal level of programme integration into business activities during the design process.


Measuring impact


An organisational leadership journey provides the challenge and the opportunity to measure impact differently. If the intervention supports a strategic aim, then the impact measure must be the success in achieving that aim. The challenge comes from the other factors that may also have contributed to success and therefore, isolating the impact of the learning intervention becomes difficult.


For instance, a couple of years ago, we designed a leadership development intervention to support an initiative conceived to increase internal promotion rates to executive-level positions.  The programme certainly contributed to achieving this aim but not in isolation. It needed to be integrated in a broader talent strategy and opened the question of whether promotion rates were a fair impact measure.

Different organisations have varying levels of tolerance for ambiguity and there is no right answer.  The challenge is to find the right impact measure for a specific organisation at a point in time. We recommend selecting multiple measures, some directly attributable to the programme and others focused on the underpinning strategic aims. In addition, the value of stories and narrative should not be overlooked, as they are effective measures of culture shift in organisations.


An enhanced role for the corporate learning function


Above all, considering leadership development programmes as organisational transformation initiatives provides an exciting opportunity for learning professionals. They maintain their role as leadership development experts but can also reposition themselves as strategic partners at the core of an organisation's strategy execution engine. 


Delivering organisational leadership programmes successfully involves having a deep understanding of an organisation’s strategy and translating it into concrete steps for leaders. Supporting integrated interventions reinforces the informal cross-department networks, which underpin the way organisations function. Finally, by becoming an organisational development mechanism, the learning function becomes a repository of concrete examples of when the company is at its best.


In short, organisational leadership interventions enable learning professionals to become an active link between strategy and execution, a real partner to the business. In the end, that may be the most effective way to close the debate on whether leadership development creates value!

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