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How to Eliminate Barriers to Real Leadership Development

September 25, 2013

Eliminate Roadblocks to Tangible Leadership DevelopmentAccording to an article in Chief Learning Officer magazine by Tasha Eurich, many leadership development programs fail because they fall into two common traps.

According to a 2011 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 76 percent of chief executives say it is important to grow their leaders. The problem is that only 7 percent think their organizations are doing it successfully.

As it turns out, CEOs aren’t the only leaders with this worry. It also hits close to home for learning executives — those with added accountability for development. And although learning organizations typically track hours and learning dollars per leader, too often the strategies being implemented don’t show an acceptable and tangible ROI.

This isn’t an unfounded fear. According to a 2010 report by Bill Gentry at the Center for Creative Leadership, half of leaders, or one out of every two managers at every level, are ineffective.

This isn’t to say leaders are unable to get better. Two causes (stated as solutions) seem to be consistently in the way of leader improvement initiatives:

Simplify Your Leadership Development Approach

Many companies are breathing their own leadership exhaust. They cram programs full of “flavor of the month” approaches, and soon the bells and whistles overwhelm the value. Whether it’s a 10-page competency model, a complicated year-long program or assigned reading from the nearly 100,000 leadership books available on, organizations are overwhelming leaders. Eventually, the leaders will start to view leadership as hopelessly complex.

In practice, the essence of leadership is to master two behaviors. In 1945, researchers at Ohio State University studied the performance of International Harvester foremen. Effective leaders, the study found great leaders

  1. showed consideration — treated employees like human beings
  2. initiated structure

These two behavioral descriptors are simple behavioral development targets. We redefine these into four key action steps: Discover, Engage, Advance and Perform.

TTI Success Insights - Discover, Engage, Advance, PerformTTI Success Insights, a global talent management assessment company, found the following key competencies associated with leader effectiveness (we also look at 50 additional competencies, any of which can interfere with success):

  1. Influencing Others
  2. Personal Accountability
  3. Self Management
  4. Goal Achievement
  5. Interpersonal Skills

The Ohio State University study identifies the challenge. The two behaviors possess an inherent tension. Leaders either make people happy or drive them to perform. The few who can do both are hard to come by; they deliver guaranteed prosperity to their company in the form of achievement, happiness, health and wealth.

Stop Delusional Development

In modern organizations, leaders are often encouraged — or required — to set yearly development goals. They attend classes, read books and get mentors. But secretly, they hope they’ll improve mostly through sheer willpower. Then, the following year, they dust off their plan only to feel shocked and discouraged that they’ve improved just slightly or not at all.

When leaders create somewhat generic development plans but don’t see improvement, it’s not usually because they can’t get better. It’s because they’re guilty of “delusional development”: the futile hope that they’ll improve just by wanting to get better and knowing enough to be dangerous.

This problem is compounded by the approach most companies take with development planning by allowing a “packaged approach” with too many goals and rarely reviewing progress.

Leadership must be built through personalized and relentless focus and daily practice based on the needs of the individual. To help leaders truly improve, learning organizations must adapt development planning to focus on the unique needs of each individual and then one behavior at a time, with regular progress reviews.

Leadership Development is like preparing for the Triple Deca Ironman RaceThe Nielson Group focuses on the five key competencies to anchor development that directly impacts the two desired behaviors. We take a step-approach to ensure this works for any manager, regardless of level.  First, we make sure leaders understand the current state of their current leadership competencies through highly valid and reliable assessments. Then, we use development programs (group and individual coaching) to round out their skills in both the people and results side. The most effective programs have included a one-on-one coaching component.

The following program designs have generated solid, tangible results for our clients with participants commonly saying “this has been the most effective coaching I’ve ever received”, “this program has been the key to moving the needle for my own development”, “my employees are saying things that affirm I’ve taken my leadership skills to a new level”, “managing people is no longer a burden to me, I actually enjoy my management role”, CLO/HR feedback: “Using pre- and post-surveys and feedback from participants’ bosses, this program has surpassed all expectations and is now our flagship program. We’ve nominated it to corporate (multi-national Fortune 150 client) for “best-in-class, best practice” recognition”:
  • Integrated Leadership Team Approach – Usually coupled with existing quarterly leadership meetings (one day committed to group development) where the leadership team is meeting for three or four days each quarter to learn concepts, set personal goals and practice leadership skills between meetings. Supporting content is both group focused (all receive the same content) and individually focused (each has their own goals and needs). One-on-one coaching is a “best practice” option with this program.
  • Leadership Development Program – Combines a class opening day and half with a closing day a half and four months of one-on-one coaching between. Similar to the Integrated Leadership Team Approach but is cross-functional (participants from different departments throughout the organization). New classes start every three months.
  • High Potential Development Program – Similar to the Leadership Development Program, each class of 15 – 20 participants focuses on their own development goals established in collaboration with their boss. This usually involves a mix of managers and non-managers in the class. For those in management/supervisory positions, the coaching focus typically mirrors the Leadership Development Program.

In the end, learning to be a leader is no different than learning to play a musical instrument or race in a Triple Deca Ironman. One must learn the subject matter and apply a high level of discipline and focus to developing the skills. Likewise, leaders should learn the concepts and behaviors of leadership, then relentlessly practice.

For more information, contact Carl Nielson, The Nielson Group, at 972.346.2892 or email him at


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