Supercharging Leadership Development: Pitfalls to Avoid and Approaches that Don't Work

February 14, 2019

Supercharging Leadership Development: Pitfalls to Avoid and Approaches that Don't Work

This post is part of an ongoing series that provides lessons and techniques for readers to supercharge their leadership development programs and implement a reliable pipeline for their company’s future leadership. Read the previous articles here: Making It Work, Working With Sherpas, and Mentoring Circles and Strategic Action Teams.  

Throughout this series, we’ve discussed the things you should do to take your leadership development (LD) programs to the next level. But today we’re going to look at the other side of the equation—things you shouldn’t do. We’ll particularly focus on dispelling common misconceptions and plain bad advice for instilling leadership in your workforce that you’ve likely received in the past. 

Don’t Be More Loyal to the Content Than the Attendees    
When you’ve created your program plan, it can be easy to fall in the trap of following it to the letter. While “follow instructions” is one of the first lessons we learn way back in kindergarten, not taking a step back and assessing if the approach needs to be tweaked partway through will squander potential gains you could realize if you and the program were to course-correct. Your loyalty should lie foremost with the attendees—the people you want to develop into leaders—and the lessons they need and the outcomes you desire.

Things change, or simply don’t go according to plan. An exercise might not have been as effective as anticipated, or the schedule as planned might be a little too fast in practice. If you’re sailing from one destination to another, and the wind blows you off course, you need to adjust your trajectory, otherwise you’ll sail right into the rocks.

Schedule regular intervals for program sponsors and leaders to meet and recalibrate what the LD program needs at that time in order to meet its desired outcomes. The content should then be tweaked accordingly, as it serves the program—not the other way around. It’s great to do a planning session up front, but if you don’t assess and modify as you go, you may never realize when you are off-track. Keep a continuous conversation happening about what’s working and what isn’t.

Last Year’s Program Was Successful—Doesn’t Mean It Will Be This Year
Did you ever have a college professor that seemed to be on autopilot? He would walk in on day one of the new semester and pull out his old yellow notebook filled with the same lectures he’s been giving for decades—the same jokes, the same pauses for questions, the same assignments.

Over time, anything can get stale—even if it’s a topic that doesn’t change, if the presenters find it rote and boring, they won’t have much passion or enthusiasm to pass on to those who want to learn. When it comes to developing leaders, though, the topic is changing—what it means to be a leader is different year after year, because the landscape we find ourselves trying to lead within is also changing. Whether it’s technological, political, cultural, regulatory, or some other kind of change, each time your LD program starts up again it’ll be doing so in a different world, so you need to take a fresh approach to it each time.

Even if last year’s program was wildly successful, that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved or adapted to be a better fit for this year. Take stock of what worked and what’s likely to change this year—has your company’s business unit structure changed? Was there a round of layoffs that has everyone a little nervous? There are many variables to account for, so identifying the most important ones and keeping them in mind when creating the latest iteration of your program will go a long way toward its success. Don’t be afraid to reinvent—success doesn’t repeat itself on its own, you have to make it happen each time.

Squeezing in as Much Program Time as Possible Is Great, If You’re Trying to Kill Creativity and Burn People Out
One thing I’ve noticed during my years of developing training and leadership initiatives for organizations is that many companies who have these programs already in place are guilty of the same thing: cramming too much into too short a time. No wonder so many are ineffective!

Nearly every trainer I know has a deep-seated fear that they’ll run out of content before the workshop is done. So they overstuff the program design until there’s no room for the lessons to breathe and take root. Cramming everyone through a day or a couple of days so you can get them back to work is not an arrangement that inspires meaningful change—it’s going to come off more like something that is getting in the way of your employees’ work (and thus needs to be checked off the to-do list and then completely forgotten), rather than a transformative experience that will benefit them and the company well into the future.

Some of the most valuable interactions happen in the “white space” between scheduled parts of the program, so make sure there is some free time where participants can have longer moments for reflection, discussion, and practice. Give ample breaks. This is especially important when senior leaders are involved in the program delivery, mingling in the in-between times—this is where relationships grow and the lessons you’re trying to instill can sink in.

One-on-one Mentoring Doesn’t Work…Well
As we discussed in my last post, true, lasting mentoring relationships generally don’t come about from forced arrangements; you’re rolling the dice when you choose a mentor and a mentee in a vacuum, simply hoping their personalities and goals align. Rarely do contrived mentor pairings, decided upon by well-intentioned executives, work as well as mentoring relationships that happen organically. 

One-on-one mentoring programs, with pairings picked by people not actually in the program, often flounder. A much more effective route for those setting up such arrangements is to create a mentoring circle, wherein there are a handful of mentees and a few mentors. In such situations, the less-experienced employees will naturally gravitate toward the mentors that will be the best fit for them. 

The Authors: 

Bill Treasurer is the Founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting and author of The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance