Re-Think Leadership Development to Ensure Initiatives Support Organizational Strategy

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek January 6, 2017
Re-Think Leadership Development to Ensure Initiatives Support Organizational Strategy

For leadership development initiatives to be truly effective, they should align with an organization's corporate strategy. However, such programs tend to focus more on the individual than on how to benefit the organization, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

SHRM, in collaboration with EFMD and NOCA—the Network of Corporate Academies— examined the effectiveness and importance of key aspects of leadership development for a recently released study, Leadership Development: The Path to Greater Effectiveness.

The study partners are international membership organizations that share information and research on management development and HR practices. EFMD studies and accredits management development programs and is based in Brussels. NOCA  focuses on HR and HR-related issues and is based in Denmark. Researchers surveyed 422 HR professionals who were SHRM, EFMD or NOCA members in September 2015 as part of the study.

The study honed in on 10 key aspects of leadership development and HR professionals' perceptions of their effectiveness and importance in improving leadership development:

  1. Support of the corporate strategy.

  2. Impact on individual performance.

  3. Impact on organizational performance.

  4. Achievement of stated goals.

  5. Selection of the right participants for leadership development initiatives.

  6. Engagement of participants and stakeholders.

  7. Impact of the organizational setup/structure of the leadership development function on business performance.

  8. Staff dedicated to leadership development.

  9. Selection and collaboration with external suppliers of leadership development.

  10. Learning systems and processes for leadership development.

Seventeen percent of respondents considered these 10 factors to be very effective in their organizations. Overall, respondents viewed leadership development to be more effective in creating an impact on individual performance than on organizational performance.

The effectiveness on individual performance could be related to HR professionals and other stakeholders being more concerned with employee performance, said Karen Wessels, researcher in workforce planning at SHRM. The findings suggest a need to focus on the impact that leadership development has on organizational performance as well, she added.  

HR professionals in Europe rated the engagement of employees in leadership development programs much higher than did HR professionals in the U.S. Researchers speculated that this may be because involvement in such programs often is mandatory in the U.S., Wessels said.

"Not everyone is cut out to be or wants to be a leader," though, she observed.

She suggested that organizations in the U.S. would benefit from establishing a selection process for development programs that includes both voluntary participation and those that management selects.

She thinks employees who voluntarily apply for leadership development will likely have a higher level of engagement in those programs and, in turn, the programs will be more effective in developing leaders.

Leadership Development Methods

A lack of resources, such as funding, time, support from top management and organizational commitment are some of the key obstacles that organizations face in achieving desired effects on performance, the survey found.

However, if HR can gain C-suite support—which would require an understanding of the goals of leadership development for the organization—and tie leadership development to the organization's business strategy, those obstacles can be overcome and investments in leadership development can be more easily justified, the report said.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Nearly one-half of respondents indicated that their organizations take steps to ensure that leadership development initiatives support the way in which their organizations are executing corporate strategy.

Strategies that are more oriented to individuals—coaching, on-the-job learning—are becoming more common than traditional classroom training because they make the development more relevant to the employee, the study found.

In fact, a majority of HR professionals expect to see coaching become more important as a leadership development method in the next two to three years, followed by leader-to-leader development, on-the-job learning, mentoring and the use of social media.

Similar findings were reported from a survey conducted with 1,089 full-time and part-time U.S. workers for Axonify.

"Employees are looking for information specific to them," and they expect employers to give them the training and information they need to be a top employee, said Carol Leaman, president and CEO of Axonify Inc., in an interview with SHRM Online. Axonify is based in Waterloo, Southern Ontario, Canada, and specializes in employee-learning platforms. Employees "don't want to waste their time" sitting in a classroom with others whose knowledge levels and needs are different from their own.

The SHRM study found that the vast majority (89 percent) of respondents said their organizations currently use on-the-job learning to develop leaders. This approach, along with such methods as coaching, leader-to-leader development and mentoring, are expected to grow over the next two to three years.

Few organizations that use coaching and on-the-job learning, though, seemed to have adopted a structured approach, according to the findings.

"If these activities are to be effective, it is important to have clearly defined goals and milestones with predetermined assessment methods that measure their impact," the report said.

"HR professionals have an important task in supporting the corporate strategy and making sure activities they introduce in the organization support this strategy," researchers pointed out in the report. "A clear link must exist between the strategy and the purpose of leadership development initiatives. The 'how' and the 'why' must be very clear, and this, perhaps, may be where most leadership development programs fail."

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