More than One Way to Approach Leadership Development

By Mark Brenner Jun 19, 2009

Many companies have embraced individual executive coaching and mentoring as key approaches to fuel their talent development initiatives. But these tools are not the only leadership development strategies available. Under certain business circumstances, they can even be imperfect solutions because they don't address the real-world, group dynamics with which executives must contend.

Group-based leadership development, however, requires leaders and potential future leaders to work in unison to:

  • Develop executive skill sets.
  • Provide one another with high-value constructive feedback.
  • Enhance interpersonal communication.
  • Break functional silos.
  • Tackle real-world challenges in real time.

The group design is based on the following principles:

  • Introspection: Engaging in self-evaluation and a gap analysis of one’s leadership profile with peers adds a special dimension to this critical facet of the development process.
  • Primacy of EQ: Ultimately, executive development is about augmenting candidates’ Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) to manage their emotions and actions better, as well as those of others. Addressing this challenge in a group environment is powerfully facilitative, since so much of EQ unfolds within an interpersonal context.
  • Reflective data mirroring: A highly-reflective data mirror is the best way to augment candidates’ EQ portfolio as it provides instant, candid feedback to an executive candidate about their strengths and weaknesses. Putting findings from EQ testing and 360-degree feedback to practical use within a “live” interpersonal setting adds a beneficial component not available within the framework of one-on-one coaching.
  • Leadership competence/ Performance management: A strategically-oriented Leadership Competency Model (LCM) is a powerful device for steering leaders’ behaviors toward the organization’s best practices. Likewise, creating a strategy-centric performance management infrastructure is the most important way to keep the leadership development process alive for each candidate, post-intervention. The group design should chronicle the core development objectives for the individual candidates and the group, and roll them into the organization’s performance management system.
  • Collective learning: The most conspicuous advantage of a group-based leadership development process is the fertile potential it has for creating real-life, real-time “learning and development moments.” The value of colleagues challenging one another with penetrating questions to generate innovative thinking, creative yet practical solutions and actionable learning is incalculable.
  • Stretch goals: Adults won't change long-established behavioral patterns and interpersonal strategies unless they are coaxed out of their comfort zones and challenged to stretch. The most dependable way to accomplish this is to challenge them with behavioral experiments and action learning initiatives. While the best one-on-one designs use these action-based techniques, the group context is an even more fertile platform for identifying ROI-rich action targets.

Group-Based Designs Solve Real-World Business Challenges

The group-based design is ideal for tackling a range of real-world business challenges, such as:

  • Silo-busting: The existence of interfunctional conflicts is an age-old, efficacy-blocking story in organizations large and small. The group-based leadership development process is a great environment for addressing these issues because the working group can be populated with cross-functional peers.

    Startlingly, an organization’s leaders often are almost clueless about what their peers do, how each adds value to the greater enterprise and how each could be of material assistance to one another if they only understood the essence of one another’s roles. Group development exercises can help bridge these divides.
  • Building team acumen: Since the development group is a de facto team, the setting offers a perfect workspace for developing and refining teaming competencies.
  • Goal-setting: When done right, the group-based design proves that two heads are definitely better than one, and that 10 are better than eight. The sheer number of high-impact, creative and operational improvement initiatives that can emerge from the process simply can't be found in the one-on-one format.

Work Study, Executive Style

VF Corp. is a Fortune 500 Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel company that markets well-known brands such as the The North Face and Wrangler. To help facilitate its executive development process, the company has created the Leadership Institute, a one-week program that brings together rising senior leaders—typically directors and vice presidents—and places them in an intense work group environment where they address real-world challenges.

With its global presence, VF's Leadership Institute attracts executive candidates from around the world. “They have to work together with a cohort of peers whom they don't know really well,” said Ron Lawrence, VF’s vice president for organizational development. “You go into that week, and you've never met this person before and you've never talked to them.”

In addition to conducting personal evaluations and inventories with the candidates, the program uses a case study. Candidates are divided into four teams that compete for a small but coveted award. Typically these leaders-to-be would have weeks to complete these business cases, but at the Leadership Institute, they have less than two days to present their case to an “operating committee” of VF's executive team.

“You've got to work together and depend on each other to make a presentation to the top executives of the company,” said Lawrence. “It’s an environment in which you have to make all the trade-offs [you sometimes have to make] when you're a real business [leader]. Participants ask themselves, ‘Where do I have time to work on something and give it more detail? Where do I have to accept an 80 percent solution and make it go? Where do I have to make assumptions about earnings and business performance and the pro forma? How good are those assumptions, what can I base them on?’”

Lawrence added: “They have to make tough decisions and defend them to the very top of the VF leadership, who ask them the questions they would ask if they were leading a business unit.”

The groups have proven so effective at problem solving in this intense environment, he said, that often organizers give them real-world situations with which the company is grappling to see what the candidates can do.

“We’ll throw a problem out there that is parallel with something that we’re really working on, and we’ll let our operating committee hear thoughts on how that problem could be solved,” he said. “It's a way to have a very real-world tie-in in an action learning mode.”

The program has yielded great results for the company. Thanks to the Leadership Institute and other VF programs, the company averages less than 4 percent voluntary attrition among its top 700 employees.

Program graduates typically see performance improvements in their reviews, especially in areas requiring strong communication skills. And ultimately, the program develops leaders that advance within the company.

“Twenty percent of our brand presidents were identified and developed through this program before they were promoted into their current jobs,” said Lawrence.

Economics of Group-Based Leadership Design

Fees for high-quality, high-impact one-on-one leadership development can range between $25,000 and $250,000 per candidate for roughly a year-long process and 50 hours of face-to-face work with a coach, according to data reported in The Global Consulting Partnership’s report, The ROI of a High-Impact, Group-Based Leadership Development Program. Under most circumstances, a high-quality, high-impact group-based leadership development solution can be delivered for less than the cost of one-on-one leadership development for just one candidate.

Group leadership development activities involving fellow team members are synchronized fully with the organization's strategy, taking advantage of the best combination of classroom learning and real-life business situations. When an organization is faced with the difficulty and complexity of the strategic task at hand, combined with the need to maximize training efficiency and development efforts, this design is an extraordinarily powerful solution for organizations to consider.

Mark Brenner is chairman of The Global Consulting Partnership, a company that provides leadership development and organizational performance solutions for for-profit and nonprofit organizations. For further information, visit or call (610) 975-9110.


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