Most management and leadership training programs focus on helping participants gain new insights, skills and tools that they can use to become more effective managers and leaders. Conventional wisdom suggests that leadership development is a long-term investment that eventually yields dividends in terms of improved business performance. But this pay-now, gain-later dynamic leaves leadership development programs vulnerable to budget cuts.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Leadership development programs can be designed with a fundamentally different premise in mind — the pursuit of short-term business performance improvements. When companies do this, they gain two benefits: better business performance and leaders who can execute more effectively. This changes the economics of leadership development programs; it can transform leadership development from a cost to a profit center in the annual budget. Here’s how Ascom, a global Swiss-based communications company, took steps toward doing so.
Results in 100 Days
Adrian Jakobsson, research and development manager at Ascom, is part of an internationally diverse group of 16 high-potential managers going through an innovative leadership development program. These candidates were drawn from a high-potential pool of managers targeted for further advancement in the company. Each program participant takes on the challenge of shaping and leading a project that aims at making significant progress in 100 days in a strategically critical area assigned to him or her by an executive sponsor — typically someone at the C-suite level. Each of these projects is referred to as a “rapid results initiative.” The program is in its third year.
Jakobsson’s project involved developing a new software package for enhancing mobile phones, and negotiating and closing deals with partners and customers. “My aim was to learn about leading cross-functional teams,” Jakobsson said. “The structure of the program gave me a roadmap and cadence to fall back on. People were so focused on achieving the nearly impossible goal that they put aside the usual bickering about turf and protocol.”
The program’s participants go through all the traditional elements of leadership development programs, including leadership tools and assessments, self-awareness programs, individual coaching and strategic conversations with business leaders. They then go through the following processes:
1. Before the initial workshop, Ascom’s business leaders shape specific business challenges that they ask participants to work on as part of the program. These challenges are contained in the program invitations that participants receive. Each participant is accountable for one challenge. These are real challenges with significant consequences for the company.
2. At the first workshop, leaders seek to inspire their teams and organizations to commit themselves to daunting 100-day goals. With guidance provided at the initial workshop, program participants choose their teams, and along with these teams they choose their own 100-day goals.
3. Participants are organized into peer learning groups of four participants. Each group has a conference call every three weeks to reflect on their experiences leading their teams, and to discuss and learn how to lead these teams to success.
Avoid Multiple Definitions of Leadership
There are thousands of books written on leadership. Each management guru defines effective leaders in his or her unique way — asserting that these attributes are the ones that matter. Leadership development programs are then designed to align with the particular attributes and competencies advocated by the program manager’s favorite guru.
While no one can know for certain the attributes that make leaders effective, there are a number of foundational activities that leaders engage in, such as mobilizing, organizing and inspiring others to perform at levels that surpass their own expectations. Instead of focusing on abstract leadership attributes in the hope that these will lead to better leadership performance, Ascom has participants perform such foundational leadership activities.
Participants in the program jointly examine their performance in leading their teams during peer review sessions. They search for clues on what they did that was particularly effective and what they failed to do in spite of knowing that it was important. They help each other identify and confront their own limitations and hold each other accountable to experiment with new behaviors. This not only helps participants advance their projects and their own development, it also creates a culture of peer coaching and support and fosters cross-boundary collaboration.
Leadership development programs can benefit from the pursuit of real, urgent and compelling business results. Companies that make this shift may find that the payoff is higher in terms of the development of aspiring leaders and they get the side benefit of bottom-line impact on their project investments.
Nadim Matta is managing partner of Schaffer Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in strategy execution, leadership development, merger integration and culture change. Markus Spiegel is a senior consultant at Schaffer Consulting. David Whitehead is the head of leadership development at Ascom. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.