Why we must STOP “developing” leaders

PwC recently released its 20th edition of the Annual Global CEO Survey. Among the findings, CEOs reported that leadership, problem-solving and collaboration skills were the most critical of the non-technical (“soft”) skills required in business today. Then, to my surprise, they nominated the same three skills as being the hardest ones to find.

Why is this surprising? And what does it say?

It’s surprising because today we live and work in a world obsessed by three things; developing tomorrows leaders, building the capacity of the modern day worker to solve any problem they face, and providing the capability for workers to connect and collaborate anywhere in the world, with anyone, at any time.

We have spent unfathomable amounts of time and money over the past 20 years on this quest. In fact, we have been building the technology and training programs to breed the best leaders, problem-solvers and collaborators in history, yet here we are.

This quest is not unique to the workplace. The modern education system is also on board with the idea. Go ahead and take a look at the website or brochure for any primary school, secondary college or university today. Almost everyone will promote their institution on a unique ability to develop students in at least one of these areas.

Parallel to this universal push, we are also being bombarded with the idea that striking it out on our own, setting up a business and breaking away from the pack is something that anyone can do, whenever they like. According to the popular theory, all it takes is a decision, a decent amount of perseverance and a bit of hard work. But according to the online marketers peddling ‘how to’ guides, mostly all it needs is just one person. You.

Each passing day, more and more people pile on to the bandwagon in the hope of hitting the jackpot and finding the secret to eternal happiness. Without questioning it, they latch onto the the idea that “going solo” is the fastest way to achieve all your goals, the one key required for true fulfilment and the ticket to retiring much richer, much sooner.

And this concerns me.

Of course, our obsession to find individuals blessed with what I like to call the “golden triad”, (i.e. leadership, problem-solving and collaboration skills), is not new.

I’m not sure if it is more amusing or sad, but go back and take look at PwC’s 10th CEO Survey. In that edition, collaboration is a primary theme, and more than one-half of all executives polled said that collaboration would form an important part of their companies competitive advantage, or would be central to survival, over the next three years! Interestingly, “inadequate leadership” was cited as one of the most concerning obstacles facing at the CEOs time.

However, despite the awareness and knowledge at the time almost nothing has changed. Ten years down the road, the same issues are still top of mind, and they’re still just as concerning for the CEO’s of today.

So what happened?

It’s mind boggling to think that finding new leaders could still be so hard. Especially with all the training, development and exposure on offer. One might reason that it’s a simple case of the big public companies dominating the war on talent. After all, they have much larger war chests, sexier marketing and can provide opportunities for development that many smaller private companies simply cannot offer.

The research says it is not.

In the current PwC survey, the struggle seems to be universal. More than 75% private and 70% of public company CEOs say they struggle to find decent leadership. And while over 55% of private enterprise CEOs said that finding collaboration skills was difficult, almost half of their public company counterparts admitted the same thing!

The question is why?

According to CEB (a subsidiary of Gartner group), “a quarter of all HR budgets is spent on leadership initiatives, and still, less than one-third of leaders are equipped to meet the future needs of the organisation”.

Clearly something needs to change.

At this point, we’ve been doing the same thing for so long, with so little reward, that old arguments of throwing more money, time and resources into developing leaders must surely be running out of steam. By now it should be obvious; more leadership training isn’t going to solve anything.

Similarly, the idea amongst some HR professionals that leadership training starts too late, must also be seriously questioned. Especially given the stated aims and the action plans of today’s educators.

Let’s take a step back and see if we can figure this out.

According to one of the largest studies ever undertaken on the topic of leadership development and its benefits, leadership training programs can be measured in part by the amount of positive behavioural change they elicit. In summarising their results, researchers have cited several behavioural changes that may be observed and measured. They were included in the findings for being either the most critical, noticeable or impactful. In no particular order, they are;

  • Asking for others help and encouraging their involvement
  • Maintaining or enhancing others self-esteem
  • Supporting others without removing individual responsibility
  • Listening and responding with empathy
  • Openly sharing feelings and concerns with others

And just like that, we are told to believe and accept that the benefits of leadership training are compelling enough to warrant further investment.

Only, I have a big problem with this. And so too it seems, do the respondents of the PwC CEO survey.

Now before I get attacked by L&D professionals and HR managers, let me be clear; I am not against the idea of developing and training leaders. Of course they are required. Without leaders, the world as we know it would cease to exist.

To successfully navigate today’s political, social and economic landscapes, it requires a tremendous amount of skill, both technical and soft. To suggest that we stop providing pathways and experiences for the next Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Richard Branson or Theresa May to emerge, is not the point I am trying to make.

Great leaders tend to make the world a better place for everyone. Whether it is in the boardroom, on the factory floor, at home or on the sporting field; I for one, am grateful for the exploits, efforts and contributions of all the leaders I have known, worked with or admired over the years. Likewise, I am grateful for the training, coaching and development I received to become a better leader myself. It is always going to be crucial for us to encourage, support and provide platforms for young people to step up, feel confident and do what they do best.

Somewhere along the line though, I think we lost our way. At some point, developing leaders became a shortcut for building better teams. Important skills like communication, empathy and listening are taught almost exclusively to leaders. The plan being that these concepts, lessons and skills are to be cascaded down to the rest of the organisation with nothing more than a brief explanation, and perhaps a demonstration or two. As time has passed, “leadership development” has been seen to be a cost-effective way to pass important information out and down to the rest of the organisation. Quite often it is used as a strategy to catalyse cultural change. A ‘best bang for your training buck’ approach.

Only it doesn’t seem to work.

It’s a bit like taking someone who likes to sing, teaching her how to read sheet music and then asking her to lead a choir. In the beginning, it sounds like a good idea because all the components seem related. The truth is, we all know this strategy probably won’t work out. And with this sort of approach in the real world, not only do things tend not work out, but they usually go from bad to worse.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you and I are both leaders from different departments in the same company. We take a leadership course together. We do the training, hear the same information and practise our new skills on each other. At the end of the program, we find that we have indeed developed new skills, like those listed above. But then what happens when we head back to our respective teams and start putting these new skills into practice? How will our efforts be received? Is it likely that we will make a significant, lasting positive impact on the rest of the team? And what effect will our training have on the business as a whole?

The short answers to those questions are; not well, no we won’t, and very little.

The billion dollar question remains - why? Why does something that works so well in a training environment fail so miserably in the real world?

I submit that one reason is that all the skills outlined above are team based. You cannot practice, install, build or nurture any of the aforementioned skills by yourself. Having one individual who is capable of engaging in these behaviours has little impact on the long-term behaviour of the team, let alone does it help in shifting the culture or performance of the company.

Maybe I am oversimplifying things, but four of the five behavioural changes listed above include the word ‘others’ in the title! Isn’t this a clue? Wouldn’t our success be more likely if the ‘others’ were involved in the training of these skills as well?

In simple terms, what we are being told are the most beneficial and impactful aspects of leadership training are, in fact, the most useful and valuable elements for developing teams.

So what if, instead of placing the responsibility for these skills on an individual, we started training entire teams? What would happen if we taught the whole team to ask for help or to enhance each other’s self-esteem? What if we learned how to support one another as a team and we were all taught how to maintain our sense of responsibility and accountability? What might be possible if the entire team was shown how to listen empathetically? And finally, what might happen if we all were given some time to practise sharing our feelings, concerns and ideas in a safe training environment?

Ask yourself: How might your business benefit from this kind of shift?

It seems to me that if you want to learn, leverage or develop any one of those skills mentioned above, you must have someone else to practice them with. And the more people on the team who receive such training, the quicker and more impactful the results achieved.

What else might be impacting our ability to find and leverage those individuals blessed with the three skills that make up the golden triad?

Let’s take a brief look at three possible culprits;

People and their careers are mobile. These days, more than ever, people change jobs. It is well known that a huge percentage of the workforce actively searches for new jobs everyday. Nothing shocking there. But consider this research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States; between ages 18–28, workers change jobs over seven times! The warning signs are obvious; not only do young people look, but they tend leap! Identifying and training potential future leaders carries with it significant risk. As the data suggests; that the skilled-up, young-gun that you pour all those leadership training dollars into, may not stick around long enough to benefit your company.

The nature of teams has changed. People are more educated and technically capable of doing their jobs than ever before. As a result, not only can they define problems better than most of the leaders in the organisation, but they utilise their knowledge to provide solutions to those problems, without the need for managerial intervention. And should they get stuck, team members often rely solely on one another to solve complex problems. The takeaway here; the need to collaborate and solve problems is no longer the sole responsibility of the leader in charge. (Was it ever?)

Out-and-down equals down-and-out Cascading information out-and-down through an organisation is no longer effective. Domain knowledge, the speed of change and the complexity of the world teams operate in, means that any communication not immediately understood, or necessary, gets filtered out. Taking an individual and developing them to the exclusion of all others on the team, usually only exacerbates this problem. What happens when a leader comes back from leadership training and starts mentioning empathy, active listening or some other element of the training they, (and only they), received? That’s right; it usually gets filtered out. It is met with suspicion by other teammates or a sense that somehow we don’t all speak the same language anymore. The team is weakened, and that developing leader is marginalised until their behaviour reverts back to something more in line with the rest of the team.

If it’s not this scenario, then something else usually hapens and quite often things end up even worse.

Armed with their new skills (and the very best of intentions), leaders may start “educating” people not only on what changes are required, but how those changes will have take place. This is not a good strategy as understanding the problem and knowing how to fix it are the two things that people who are trained, capable and confident, pride themselves on being able to figure out for themselves.

And so the team divide grows.

According to research and analytics giant Gallup, 73% of employees today feel that don’t know how to apply their organisation’s values to their work every day. Now that leaves just over a quarter that do and, although I can’t find the figures, I’d be willing to bet that a big chunk of the remaining 27% are the chosen ones who get the leadership training.

So let me be clear, the development of the team is where you should invest most heavily, not the individual. There are no short cuts.

By all means, train leaders, just don’t do it to the detriment of the rest of the people in your organisation. The gap it creates is often too wide, even for the leaders to cross.

It is a trap to think that leadership skills are solely the domain of a single person. However, it’s one that we seem to fall into time and time again. The sooner we realise that in today’s landscape, a cohesive team is capable of adding much more value than the well-trained leader, the sooner we can turn things around.

My point is, value will not be created in isolation. Especially not today. Maybe it never was; never forget, it took two people to create the Mona Lisa.

If you are still with me, then I salute you. I think we are on the right track. What we are talking about is a “team first” approach. And that’s the phrase upon which I founded the company that I lead today.

So what does ‘team first’ mean?

At Shifting Peers, it means that before we set out to develop or create anything of value in the marketplace, we always make sure that we consistently spend time developing, nurturing and building the teams responsible for making these things happen. In other words, we never take the team or the ability of teammates to work together for granted.

Don’t be fooled here. A ‘team first’ approach, like the one I am advocating, is not a simple “strategy swap”. It’s not a matter of choosing “team development” versus “leader development”. Strategic team development is a different beast entirely. It does not come with the same set of promises.

It is not easy. It is definitely not a single event. It is does not involve sharing the same knowledge or information with a different bunch of people.

Developing a cohesive team is difficult.

On the flip side, it is not complex either. Significantly for todays business owners and CEOs, strategic team development means that trainers, coaches and program managers can no longer say they have done a good job if the business fails to realise positive change, or if teams fail to create tangible value. Without the emergence a more supportive culture within the team, I for one, cannot possibly say my company has done a good job.

In short, ‘team first’ leaves no room to hide. Everybody is involved. Everyone is responsible. It requires a mindset that seeks improvement on every level, by every member of the team.

Lastly, it means that although you might not be the “leader” in the traditional sense, ‘team first’ means that you can no longer absolve yourself of your responsibility to provide leadership when called upon.

So where do I suggest we start?

In our live events and training, I always start off with the three essential keys that any cohesive team must possess. They are; trust, awareness and purpose.

Difficult? Sure, but certainly not complex. The trick is knowing what opportunities these keys lead to, and then guiding entire teams to take advantage of those opportunities every day.

I recently published a podcast interview with Annie La Fleur. Annie has achieved an amazing amount of team success over the years. It’s hard not to be impressed; she’s a former Olympic medalist, a WNBA basketball player and she is in the New South Wales Basketball Hall of Fame. These days she’s a development officer for FIBA, where she collaborates with basketball federations and teams from all over the Oceania region.

And without a doubt, despite all the achievements, the most impressive thing about Annie is her ability to work with others. She has been on all sorts of teams. She’s been a starter and the star; she’s also been a leader and a role player. She has played ‘big minutes’, and she has had to come off the bench and been told to make the most of her limited opportunities.

During our conversation, Annie said something that helped pull these ideas together. It was her attitude toward how basketball teams at the highest levels win and lose. It was her blueprint for success:

“You’ve got all these egos and personalities, and there’s only one basketball. And that creates a problem for some people. It all comes down to how your team can gel”.

This is the reason why ‘team first’ is so important.

How many leaders do you think Annie came across in her years as a player? How much time do you think went into developing those leaders on the court? Now ask yourself; what was the one thing that determined how well those teams performed?

That’s right, it was how well everybody worked together. It was the quality of the teammates and how well they could gel that made all the difference. Ask Annie, and she’ll tell you; a decent team can do a reasonable job of covering for a poor leader or coach. But there is no way an individual can cover for a bad team. It doesn’t matter how much training the leader has, how well they can speak, or how well they listen.

“Team player” is not as sexy as “possesses the golden triad”. In many ways it explains why we are drawn to the superhero and not the sidekick. We love the idea of an individual taking on everyone and everything, leading their team to victory. We pay huge sums of money to see these stories played out on movie screens and on sporting fields year after year. I just question whether we should be doing the same in our businesses?

If you’re truly committed to developing the best leaders possible; people who can solve problems, collaborate productively with others and help lead teams forward, don’t start by putting them into leadership training. Start by helping them become the best teammate possible. Give them a sense of the power and possibility that comes from being held responsible and accountable in a team that truly knows how to work together.

I can’t say that this means they will go onto to be the next great leader of your company. That will take years to find out, (assuming they stick around), but I can absolutely guarantee that the contribution they make, and the lessons they learn along the way, will be felt immediately. And they will be challenged to solve bigger problems. They will learn how to collaborate. And they will have a front row seat to see what leadership is really is all about.

The true promise of ‘team first’ is that it provides signnificant benefits to the individual, the team and the organisation. Isn’t this the golden triad we should be looking for?

In summary, ‘Team first’ provides genuine, tangible and immediate value in ways that no leadership program can.

Not now. And perhaps, not ever.


Dan Stones is a team strategist and founder of Shifting Peers. He is the host of the podcast Barnraisers — Conversations with the World’s Ultimate Team Players and co-founder of The Square Wheels Project— a facilitation toolkit and online training course for supervisors. You can connect with Dan on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.