Survey: Many Leadership Development Programs Too Tactical

By Pamela Babcock May 22, 2008

If your leadership development training does little more than fill your head with minutiae about plodding through pesky performance issues, handling workplace conflict and other tactical initiatives, you’re not alone.

Most development programs focus narrowly on day-to-day operational issues and are woefully lacking in ways to instill in business leaders more strategic skills such as how to communicate vision or delegate responsibility, according to a recent study by Boston-based global consulting firm Novations Group.

“The findings point to the biggest challenge facing career-minded managers, [which is] how to move beyond being the expert to becoming a true leader,” says Novations CEO and President Mike Hyter. “This isn’t just a shift in skills, but a fundamental change in perspective—delegating with care, but taking the department, or division or organization in a clear direction.”

When asked which areas are addressed by their company’s leadership development program, top responses were coaching a performance problem (71.9 percent); communicating performance standards (69.1 percent); coaching a development opportunity (68.7 percent); conducting a performance appraisal (66.8 percent); and handling conflict situations (65.9 percent).

More strategic areas were among those least focused on. Those areas include change management (45.2 percent); acting on feedback (44.7 percent); teaching a skill and delegating responsibility (39.6 percent); and influencing internal resources (34.6 percent).

For the study, an Internet survey of 2,556 senior HR and training and development executives throughout the U.S. and Canada was conducted in December 2007.

Strategic Thinking Doesn't Happen Overnight

It turns out that not only can leadership development training be focused too much on routine rather than strategic issues—it also can be too generic.

A 2007 study by The Forum Corp., a Boston-based company that works with Fortune 1000 companies to develop leaders’ strategic abilities, found that most leaders weren’t equipped with the skills needed to execute their companies’ growth strategies.

Forum Corp.’s research found that the skill development needed depends on the strategy being pursued.

“While there is a core group of leadership skills, there are also specific skills that leaders should use when leading an organic growth strategy that are significantly different than those they should use when they’re leading a [merger and acquisition] growth strategy,” says Ed Boswell, chief executive officer of The Forum Corp. The problem, he notes, is that most companies don’t account for these distinctions and therefore leaders are ill-equipped.

Aarti Thapar, managing consultant for PA Consulting Group’s Business Transformation Practice in New York, says it’s key to get the business basics down before you can focus effectively on the strategic elements. “If the business units [don’t believe] that operational elements are being effectively conducted, it will be hard to get credibility to focus on the strategic aspects,” she says.

She recommends using business partner training to build strategic capabilities in organizational diagnosis; influencing, coaching and facilitation; transformational change management; commercial management; and technical capabilities such as employee relations, rewards and talent development.

Sometimes, business partners need to be convinced that a leader is ready to take on strategic, rather than tactical, roles. Jean Houston Shore, a management consultant with Business Resource Group in Roswell, Ga., says an organization she worked with was able to build its HR leader’s strategic skills by renegotiating and enforcing boundaries with other departments. The leader was constantly being pulled into meetings to manage tactical issues when processes were already in place to handle those issues at a different level.

“The leader realized that he needed to build up the subordinate employees’ reputations within the company so that outside departments wouldn’t feel they had to involve him in order to get things resolved,” Shore explains. “He began to actively promote the capabilities of his department to others and vowed to stop getting in the way of the work. It took time, but some of the fire-fighting went away and morale in his department improved.”

Shore says one way HR and other business leaders can learn to think strategically is to verbalize multiple options and points of view.

“Habitually recognizing the various stakeholders in any situation and being flexible enough to see many perspectives develops the leader’s ability to back away from problems at hand,” she says. “The big picture then becomes clearer.”

Several other habits separate strategic thinkers from tactical ones, says Kaihan Krippendorff, a former McKinsey & Co., consultant and New York-based author who has worked to build strategic thinking skills with HR professionals at Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and Fidelity.

  • They spend more time discussing possible solutions rather than discussing problems. “While more novice strategists will hold conversations filled with comments like ‘what is wrong with our shipping time?’, experienced strategists move more quickly to comments like ‘maybe we should outsource shipping,’ ” Krippendorff says.
  • They think strategically about the dynamics behind getting buy-in. That means figuring out whom they should convince of their idea first, who they should get on board second, and so on “so that by the time she presents her idea everyone has already bought in,” he says.
  • They tell memorable stories that influence listeners. “Wrap your strategy in a compelling story that draws people in and pushes the right buttons so that they cannot resist supporting you,” Krippendorff says.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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