To Develop Innovative Leaders, We Need More Innovative Leadership Development Programs

According to research by McKinsey, leadership development programs at even the top companies are ineffectual — many are even BS. But leadership development professionals aren’t too blame. On account of short-term growth pressures, the majority of CEO’s are reactive at best when it comes to properly funding leadership development until they are faced with no alternative.

This reactive spending on leadership development programs creates reactive programs that build reactive leaders. But the world needs better. As we saw in 2017, a year best categorized by reaction, there was a never-ending flow of leaders reacting political, economic, and natural events. So while today’s leaders are stuck reacting to these events, it’s time to ask this: Who is developing the leaders to get ahead of the challenges we might face tomorrow, and strive to prevent them?. The World Economic Forum, for one, has stepped up to call on more responsible leaders as a result of the this “leadership crisis”.

How do you build these leaders?

It’s not easy, but the research is pretty conclusive on this: the best way is to give future leaders stretch experiences where they are forced to embody leadership skills, and then reinforce that learning with adequate goal-setting, coaching, and reflection. However, even though this has been document for years, uptake is slow.

The real question here is not HOW do you build better leaders. The conversation needs to become: How do you get businesses to fund this type of leadership development?

The issue is not that we don’t know how to develop leaders. It’s that governments, companies, and organizations are not willing to prioritize the development with the mistaken belief that it’s a long-term investment.

To help answer this question, we turned to our partners at Emerging World to further analyze its annual research conducted on leadership development programs that send employees volunteering their skills overseas in immersive, stretch-experiences.

In the data in this report lies effective tools to justify the investment for developing more proactive, innovative leaders — TODAY. Here are five big takeaways from the 2017 study that should provide lessons to any company’s leadership development programs, as well as the current leaders debating whether to fund them:

1. Leadership development programs can deliver business impact in the short-term

According to research from Deloitte, the leadership gap is widening: meaning that while many CEOs recognize the importance of developing leaders , there is a global shortage of investment to achieve this. This is because executive teams are driven by short-term results, and they mistakenly believe that leadership development programs only recognize a ROI in the long-term. Emerging World research finds that every program measured derived enduring business impact, with 56% of respondents identifying two or more areas of business impact resulting from their experience.” As Lutz Ziob, Dean of Microsoft4Afrika Academy, shares, “By closely aligning projects with our business goals, we have seen our volunteers deliver improved performance and many new opportunities for business growth.

Takeaway: By integrating leadership development programs with business priorities and social good initiatives, you can recognize people and business outcomes in the short term.

2. Rising leaders raise their peers

Leadership programs that intentionally build in peer feedback, peer and manager-supported goal setting, and post-project report-backs create a wonderful ROI for programs, and when executed properly, peers and managers will not only report seeing the participating employee lifted by the experience, but the same peers and managers will be positively influenced by them, too.

Takeaway: Leadership development takes a village. Direct reports, peers, managers, and skip-levels should all engage with the leader being developed.

3. If today’s leaders aren’t gender equal, tomorrow’s leaders won’t be, either

Companies with diversity at the leadership level perform better. Period. Research shows that in leading programs that promise leadership development AND social impact to employees, like Microsoft’s MySkills4Afrika program (which include many technical and engineering projects), the gender split is almost a perfect 50–50. And they achieve this almost perfect split with zero promotion or selection bias.

Takeaway: By creating programs that appeal to people’s purpose as much as their promotions, you’ll increase the diversity of your programs.

4. Leaders grow fastest in real, stretch experiences.

As MovingWorlds published before in HBR, there are no shortage of opportunities to connect to stretch experiences if you look beyond the traditional walls of your business. In fact, the more real and authentic the experience, the more transformative the learning. This is why sponsoring employees on international, skills-based volunteer projects are so effective. As Elise Saur, Program Lead for EY’s Vantage Program, reports: “This development leads to more value for our business, our clients, and our purpose.

Takeaway: Look in non-traditional places to find real, skills-based, stretch experiences.

5. Stretch experiences aren’t enough

While our point in #4 above is true, a stretch experience is just the starting point. Adequate support, before, during and post-experience, must be provided. Optimizing corporate leadership programs doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take intention. As highlighted in Emerging World’s study, Eva Halper, Director of Corporate Citizenship at Credit Suisse shares, “a more structured way of supporting employees returning from their assignment has resulted in very positive responses from participants.” Applying a transformative learning model to the experience is an adopted best practice and results in improved outcomes for all parties.

Takeaway: Little additions before, during, and after a stretch experience can have exponentional returns.

In Summary

According to Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, “It is the daunting task of today’s leaders to take the right decisions in a complex world that suffers from many legacy issues and emotional turmoil… We must never forget that we live in an interdependent world. The scale and scope of our challenges require the commitment and comprehensive cooperation of all stakeholders of global society.

Indeed, if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we must first and foremost invest in human capital. But, it will take work. As the CEO of MovingWorlds, I work with some of the most recognizable brands in the world to develop world-positive leaders ready to get ahead of tomorrow’s challenges. But for every company that we work with, we talk to (easily) 10x more that attempt to launch programs like this, but get stuck in corporate bureaucracies and short-term financial pressures. This is unfortunate to say the least, as the short-term mindset in developing leaders will leave the world stuck in many of the same crisis situations we found ourselves in 2017 unless action is taken.

Companies can — and must fund — leadership development, and they can do so in a way the creates short-term business impact while contributing to society. What are your ideas to build proactive and responsible leaders for tomorrow while addressing today’s issues?