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It's Time to Update Leadership Development

Leadership training programs need an update to reflect today's work world.

A group of people walking up a mountain.

​Leadership development may be the next human capital system ripe for disruption. That’s largely because work is evolving to become less siloed and hierarchical as organizations shift their focus from processes to culture.

Yet only 1 in 6 HR professionals say their current leadership development activities are very effective, according to Leadership Development: A Path to Greater Effectiveness, a 2016 research report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In addition, such programs appear to have a greater impact on individual performance than on that of the organization, the report revealed. These results are disappointing given the time and money many companies devote to grooming new leaders.

Organizational barriers include a lack of resources and inadequate support from management. But something even more fundamental may be at play. Historically, most training programs have taught general skills, such as how to influence people and devise strategies, that are far removed from an organization’s distinct culture. While this type of preparation is often well-received and can even improve behavior for a short time, it has little long-term impact because it’s not tailored to the needs of the organization. Moreover, the substantial cost of these programs typically requires companies to invest selectively, focusing only on a small subset of “high-potential” employees.

To be effective, leadership development models and methods will likely need to change. Luckily, more than half of the HR professionals in SHRM’s survey said their organizations are in the process of developing or upgrading their learning and development initiatives.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connnect

The Center for Creative Leadership, a research and education company, identified four trends for future leadership development programs:

Vertical development. The traditional focus, known as horizontal development, is on reinforcing the fundamental skills and competencies needed to perform well at one’s current level. While that will still be important, the uncertainty of the emerging world of work will require a stronger emphasis on building employees’ leadership capacity in more-complex roles.

Individual ownership. Established models rely on organizational structures, including human resources, to sponsor and coordinate leadership development initiatives. But the strongest benefits are realized when workers are able to determine their own training agenda.

Collective leadership. Less hierarchy and more fluidity in the workplace will require leadership skills to be more widely distributed across the workforce. 

Innovation. Greater agility and more experimentation are needed to meet the demands of the new environment.

To guide additional program refinements, keep in mind the leadership training methods that HR professionals in the SHRM survey expect to be the most important in the next two to three years:

  • Coaching.
  • Leader-to-leader development.
  • On-the-job/in-role learning.
  • Mentoring.
  • Social media.

Of course, simply piling on more activities won’t help if you don’t first understand your organization’s unique needs. Start from the ground up and focus on how to capitalize on the learning opportunities that occur naturally within your organization, such as through stretch assignments. The timing couldn’t be better for making a big change.

Shonna Waters is vice president of research at SHRM.

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