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Pulling Back the Curtain on L&D’s Myths

Learning and development strategy has to turn a corner. Calling out the persistent misperceptions that still affect corporate leadership development practices can only advance that process.

Fifteen-plus years ago Robin Lucas, vice president at Fredrickson Learning, was working in learning for a different organization. The team had identified a program that seemed effective for its leadership development needs. It taught principles the organization wanted its leaders to have. It had a nice model around it, and it had a sustainable plan. The department even brought in and certified trainers to deliver the program.

Sounds great, right? No. The audience didn’t buy into any of it, nor did they support the program when it was rolled out. Even though it was a proven model, supported by research, because they weren’t part of the decision-making process, neither upper nor middle management were on board.

After the failure, the company turned its attention to something else, without stopping to reflect on what happened and why. “If we had been smart, we would have turned that on its head and asked: Why wasn’t it successful? Where did we make the mistakes along the way? How can we build that support and relaunch the program?” Lucas said.

But lessons have to be learned. To do that, learning leaders will have to let go of what they know and do currently, and confront and debunk some of the more persistent myths around leadership development that impact how they do their work and measure its value to the business.

Myth 1: It only takes one training event for learning to take place — and stick. Learning is a one-time event, not an integrated process.

Reality: It is possible to make an impact with a one-time event, for instance, through a forum or a workshop. But approaching leadership development at a company with a one-and-done attitude will yield few sustained results over the long haul, said Devin Bigoness, executive director for Cornell Executive Education at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Further, the chance for leadership development failure is compounded when organizational culture is not supportive, as was the case in Lucas’ earlier story.

“One of the things that we often see in learning is that we think we can fix something by just putting a program out there when in fact, there’s a lot of different things that allow that program to be successful,” Lucas explained. Two of the main factors that make a program successful are whether the culture supports and buys into it and whether there is a strategy in place to promote lasting changes.

Bigoness said learning leaders have to be aware of their organization’s cultures at the team and companywide level. They also have to know their company’s formal and informal cultural norms. Get beyond the design of the program, how it is delivered and to whom. Culture is key. A company with a strong learning culture provides the psychological safety for vulnerability, smart risk taking and even some mistakes.

Some markers of a supportive learning environment easily rise to the surface, but in other cases learning leaders have to dig into the culture, and then they have to keep digging if they want to deliver a program that is effective because it is acutely attuned to its audience and the environment it exists in.

When creating a leadership development model, for instance, a learning leader may ask “How are decisions made here?” After the initial response, there may be a meeting to hash out details. The team decides on various pieces of the model and then proceeds. Lucas said at this point learning leaders must keep probing if they want to be effective. When they continue to ask questions, they may discover that things are not exactly as they seem. Perhaps there was a meeting after “the meeting” where a select few settled on different next steps — subtly undermining the collaboration that just took place. Lucas said you have to keep asking questions.

“You feel like a 3-year-old, but keep asking that question,” she said. “You eventually get down to the root of what is either happening or why people believe that is the way it is in your culture.”

These deeper conversations will help the learning leader decide how to best proceed.

Myth 2: Leadership development is for, well, leaders — people leaders.  

Reality: “You’re not thinking more holistically about the needs of your business if that is your sole focus,” Bigoness said.

When learning leaders take this narrow approach to leadership development, they’re leaving out individual contributors and managers who may lead smaller teams and are critical to the business moving forward.

Learning leaders have to really understand their audience, then get to know what are the critical capabilities that a leader needs to develop to lead themselves, lead the business, lead or be part of high-performing teams, and lead change. These are skills needed up and down the leadership pipeline and across the organizational structure, Bigoness explained. “You don’t have to lead a large team to need to know how to have self-awareness and how to lead yourself.”

When organizations embrace the myth that leadership development is for people leaders only or for senior people leaders, “You’re not necessarily leveraging all of the advantages and resources that you have as an org leader,” Bigoness said.

Here are some indicators that a company is clinging to this myth, effectively disempowering employees and placing its future in a precarious position:

The company leadership pipeline lacks vibrancy. If there are critical skill gaps, and it’s been years since anyone from an emerging leadership level moved into a senior leadership role, that’s a problem.

There is substantial outside hiring for front-line managers. Many of the employees in this group should be coming up from the individual contributor ranks.

Pulse survey and anecdotal employee feedback tell a sorry tale. People are reporting they don’t see a way to be promoted to their boss’ job, or they don’t see a future at the organization for related reasons.

Smart organizations see the importance of leadership development taking place throughout the company, said Lucas, of Fredrickson. “I recognize that things are going to change and that the growth of my organization is dependent on innovation of ideas and changes of leadership to support my business model, my growth expectations, the business outcomes that I’m looking for,” she said. “Over time, I as a leader have seen that we stagnate if we don’t support that change and if we don’t support that growth.”

Myth 3: Leadership development isn’t leadership development if the company doesn’t contract out for it.

Reality: “If you bring in other people and rely on them to tell you what you should be, you’re not going to have the ownership you have to reflect as a team,” said Noelle Gill, vice president of leadership development at Lear Corp. “You have to decide what you want to be. When you outsource that, it just doesn’t become authentic. You have to be true to your culture.”

In 2009, the nearly century-old automobile seating manufacturer and distributor filed for bankruptcy. Gill said during those dark days, human resources continued succession planning and annual performance reviews, but that was the extent of the company’s talent management activities. Associating the company’s lack of a formal leadership model with its humble, “scrappy roots,” as the business worked to recover: “Training and development, and certainly the notion of leadership and their role in the organization, was not necessarily at the top of our priority list when it came to keep the business alive and functioning,” she said.

When Lear emerged from bankruptcy, Gill said the company’s new chief human resources officer, Tom DiDonato, recognized an urgent need for a leadership model for mid and upper-level managers to sustain the progress it had accomplished. In pulling itself back to its feet, Lear was hyperfocused on results, but it was important that leaders were encouraged to work together to reach company goals the “right” way, Gill said.

The team developed a model based on behaviors the company wanted to promote and rolled out a suite of learning solutions to help ensure company interests were prioritized, collaboration was emphasized and accountability was valued. New leadership at the top of the house initially partnered with outside consultants who proposed plans that amounted to a heavy investment, but Gill, along with DiDonato, soon convinced executives to take a different route that wouldn’t force the company to lean on external resources for leadership guidance.

Gill said with the groundwork DiDonato laid, the learning organization developed a leadership assessment tool to identify the company’s leadership challenges, then developed its own programs. “What’s exciting now is seeing us step up ourselves to address them in the way that we run our business day to day.”

The Johnson School’s Bigoness said when it comes to companies moving forward, there are components of leadership development programming that should be done with internal sponsorship, guidance and leadership. Plus, a high level of internal involvement promotes greater sustainability. “No matter how long the engagement, the organization is going to be the organization for the foreseeable future, so it makes sense to have champions of change in-house.”

Conversely, organizations that fixated on looking inward but now want to look externally to their market would benefit from having an external partner facilitate the process. “You might be a very successful company but you might not see what’s in your blind spots,” he explained.

Further, depending on how a company wants to roll out an initiative, it might have the knowledge, capacity, capability, experience or bandwidth to bring the vision to fruition on its own. Still, an external partner could help there, too, said Bigoness because in design and sustainability the best programs are a hybrid of external and internal resources.

However, learning leaders should hesitate before turning over the entire job of developing and running a leadership development program to outside help. A consultant can bring capacity and a unique view to the business dilemma at hand, but the company must be involved. The course content, the phraseology, the marketing, these are just some of the characteristics in an initiative that can’t be simply plucked from a catalogue or off a web site. They likely need to be customized using insights and objectives from the requesting company to meet its unique needs — “not to be overlooked or taken lightly,” Gill said.

Myth 4: Learning and development is a cost center. That’s expected. It’s the corner learning leaders are constantly fighting to get out of because learning and development isn’t a value creator.

Reality: If a learning leader isn’t in this position now, there’s a good chance they were at one point, and it’s likely one of their peers still is. Strategic planning time comes around, and rather than look at learning and development as a performance strategy that can facilitate business impact, learning is treated as a line item. Measuring learning’s value is hard, Bigoness said, but that’s evolving. Nevertheless, without creating business value, learning and development loses credibility, trust, and flops or founders in the company budget.

Learning leaders can get a pretty good feel for whether their organization sees learning as primarily a cost center by considering the answers to the following questions:

When does learning appear in strategic planning conversations? Learning should be part of the original conversation, not the downstream discussion, Bigoness said.

Can the learning leader answer strategic questions on where the business is going? If not, they’re probably not at the table. Learning in these environments isn’t seen as a driver of competitive advantage, it is merely training — a work enabler.

Is it just training? Bigoness said looking at accepted vernacular around learning and development isn’t a tried-and-true gauge for its place among company priorities, but he said he’s noticed that organizations that see learning as a differentiator speak of it as such. Instead of training, it’s leadership development, talent development or executive learning, for example.

There is a cost to delivering leadership development, but hopefully what inspires greater buy-in among leadership is learning’s ability to create more business value than cost. Proving learning’s value is the Holy Grail for executive education providers, Bigoness said. It can feel like an elusive task for learning organizations as well. But it has to be done, and increasingly learning leaders are creating and identifying ways to measure and make learning’s impact tangible. They’re asking: What kind of ideas came out of the program? Were there any new inventions or process improvements, for instance?

“Part of the task is to try to get the participants and the stakeholders to quantify those so that while yes, there is an investment to run a program, time, money, everything else, you also look at it as a value creator that hopefully far outweighs the direct cost of running the program,” Bigoness said.

Line up the outcomes, learning leaders. Then, when the corner office is enamored with the results, remind them where they came from.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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