Four ways to improve leadership development

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Published by
Jan Hills
September 12, 2016

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“We spend on leadership programmes at business schools. Our leaders know a lot but application is spotty”
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In the recent CIPD survey on leadership and talent development, organisations reported a deficit of management and leadership skills. Two-thirds said senior managers lack skills, while 85% report line managers and supervisors also lack skills.

The key areas that needed to improve were:

  • The skills of leaders to think in a more strategic and future-focused way (54%).
  • Developing high-potential individuals
  • Producing common standards of behaviour for leaders
  • Ensuring leaders were skilled to achieve the organisation’s strategic goals.

In our own research on talent strategy, carried out in the spring of 2012, all organisations cited leadership development as a high priority for successful execution of their business and talent strategy. Yet most participants also noted the lack of success they were having in changing the behaviour of those leaders. Phrases like “We have put leaders through the best programmes but it has made no difference to business results” and “We spend on leadership programmes at business schools. Our leaders know a lot but application is spotty” were examples of what our research participants said.

So why is leadership development so poor at delivering results and what can be done about it?

We have been studying the neuroscience of learning and behaviour change and noting some important lessons for leadership development and the design of programmes.

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People remember and make connections when they have mild stress, a positive mood and good sleep.

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1.When people bond and achieve things together the brain has a reward response. Leadership development works best when you create a community of learners. This is the purpose of face to face workshops but a couple of days are not enough to sustain the learning. Creating on-line learning communities is a way of continuing the relationships and the learning. As are projects and action learning activities.

2.People remember and make connections when they have mild stress, a positive mood and good sleep. Delivering learning in small chunks, in a fun and relaxed manner and giving breaks for reflection overnight works best. Mild stress or Flow (this video explains Flow) is created when learners are stretched and there is a balance between the challenge of the learning and their perceived ability to apply their skills and knowledge. Avoiding fear but creating challenge is the role of a skilled facilitator.

3.Learning is enhanced when the design creates attention, the generation of ideas, emotion and space between learning events. Design learning to maximise these elements. In practice this means a design that:

  • Engages the participants at a positive emotional level
  • Identifies what they can personally gain from adopting the learning
  • Requires them to apply the tools and knowledge or new skills and to have a felt sense of the new behaviour

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The brain creates new neural pathways when information is used in multiple ways.

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4. The brain creates new neural pathways when information is used in multiple ways. Programmes that provide several channels for learning and applying material work best.

You can see a short video about Brain-savvy leadership development design here. Many leadership programmes we see fail to design their learning in a way that works with how people actually learn and change. Whilst some of the requirements are subtle they make the difference between an expensive excision and adopting new ways of working essential to business strategy execution.

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