We live, work and lead in a world driven by social connectivity. Easy access to social communication tools has given everyone a megaphone and turned employees and consumers alike into actively engaged people expecting a voice in the decisions, products and strategies of the companies we care about.
Today’s leaders face challenges related to business disruption, ambiguity, complexity, widely connected constituencies and how to communicate with multiple constituencies simultaneously.
It is ineffective to focus on static lists of behaviors and backward-looking competency models to frame leadership development. The most effective leadership development work focuses on the individual and uses the leader’s own productive capabilities as a starting point. This creates three important shifts.
1. Leadership is about who, not what. In a world where disruption is the norm and the landscape is unpredictable, helping leaders remain adaptable and flexible is critical. Focusing on the productive aspects of who the leader truly is and then helping grow those capabilities is far more useful than trying to get people to adopt a set of behaviors that are not their own. We look at five areas of who a leader is in our work: mindfulness, proactivity, authenticity, openness and social scalability — the ability to communicate with individuals, groups and the whole organization simultaneously.
2. Leadership is very personal. Every leader has his or her own unique way to succeed. Equally important is the leaders’ purpose: the unique set of values, goals and ambitions that drive them to become more than themselves. Leadership development programs that are dispassionate, seeking to bring entire cohorts to a common standard, ignore these unique aspects of the individual. This is why so many programs struggle to succeed. The most effective leaders lead from a sense of who they are, and the best leadership development efforts allow them to learn about themselves and to capitalize on what they do best.
3. Make experiences true learning opportunities. There is no more effective or personal way to develop leaders than a developmental assignment. Although we have always known this, costs and the nature of our rapidly changing business environments make it harder than ever for learning leaders to create or set aside specific assignments used primarily for development. Learning professionals must help individuals turn the assignments they have into effective learning opportunities.
The best learning opportunities have four features:
Novelty: There is something about the assignment that is new. The context of the role, the substance of the assignment or the scope of responsibilities is different in some way.
Opportunity for innovation: Participants have latitude in how they approach the assignment.
Inherent feedback: Any assignment in which real learning occurs will include success and failure. To be truly developmental, the assignment needs to provide feedback on both aspects along the way.
Learning mindset: Learning assignments must be approached with a learning mindset. Individuals should have a sense of what they want to get out of the assignment, expect feedback along the way, expect difficulties and have identified resources to help as needed, and expect to spend some reflection time making sense of what has happened.
These four features provide two key avenues for learning and development programs to make critical contributions. First, there is a real opportunity to help either set up assignments or help individuals negotiate within existing assignments those first three features: novelty, innovation and feedback.
In the second avenue learning leaders can have an effect by helping leaders develop a learning mindset. For leaders, understanding how and why they are productive, and creating a commitment to become more than they are, is the foundation of this mindset.
In the hyper-connected modern world, helping leaders remain significant and thrive in their own unique, purpose-driven way is the biggest challenge for leadership development.