Leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Here’s how.
In 1970, legendary NFL coach Vincent Lombardi was asked to share his advice on what it took to be a good leader. His speech, which would turn out to be his last, was full of wisdom, but one sentence stood out and is still widely quoted more than 50 years later: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made.” That statement is true not just for the world of American football, but for all settings. Effective leadership is not an innate quality; like other skills, it’s something that must be learned. The most reliable way for an organization to ensure that its employees acquire these skills is to implement a comprehensive leadership development program.
To understand best practices for companies looking to put in place such a program, we surveyed more than 1,500 C-level executives with decision-making power over leadership training and development at organizations with 500+ employees in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Here are five tips based on what they told us.
1. Secure active business sponsorship
Most companies see value in leadership development, and less than 1% of the C-suite executives we spoke to said they had no formal program. But getting the right investment and buy-in for leadership development was still reported to be the joint biggest challenge for survey respondents. Building and maintaining a quality leadership development program requires ongoing resources, so getting active business sponsorship early on is essential to making it work. One way of achieving that is by communicating the program’s broader business benefits.
For example, The Adecco Group’s annual survey of past and present participants in its ‘CEO for One Month’ program has shown the most in-demand skill is ‘people management and leading teams.’ Employers who show they take leadership development seriously will have a head start in attracting and retaining the best talent.
2. Don’t create a cookie cutter program
It’s easy to find one-size-fits-all “leadership 101” courses, but as with anything mass produced, they won’t adequately consider a user’s unique needs in the way a thoughtful, tailored program can. Perhaps that’s why in Australia and the UK, only 58% and 33% of respondents, respectively, said their leadership development is very well aligned with their business objectives. To create a program truly tailored to an organization’s needs, we recommend taking three important steps.
1.Establish what problems you hope to solve through leadership development.
2.Identify which skills you need in your leaders to solve these problems, as well as the current and future skills gaps within the organization.
3.Discover what skills participants want to develop through leadership programs. The best way to do this is simple: ask them.
These three steps will also allow you to build evaluation and data collection into the program from the very start, allowing for more granular
measurement than the traditional post-course survey. This can form the basis of longer-term tracking of results among participants, such as whether they have progressed in their career or made use of their newly acquired skills.
3. Make sure your program is agile and forward-thinking
They say that the only constant is change, a sentiment that survey respondents agreed with. The vast majority (89%) reported that ‘agility and responding to constant change’ was a challenge, and the same proportion cited ‘adapting to business reorganization/restructuring’ as something they struggled with. This, more than anything else, highlights the importance of leadership development that not only teaches people the skills they need now, but also equips them with the ability to identify the skills the business will need going forward – and, most importantly, builds the enthusiasm, agility and confidence they need to continually develop those skills in themselves and their colleagues through their careers. When change is the biggest challenge, leadership development becomes the most potent weapon in an enterprise’s arsenal.
4. Spotlight the benefits of leadership development
The vast majority of executives we surveyed (89%) said they faced challenges when trying to implement a leadership development program, and the most common barrier reported was a lack of interest from those benefiting from the training program, closely followed by a lack of awareness of its benefits. Effectively communicating those benefits can solve both problems at the same time.
We advise employers to focus their communications on the ways in which leadership development will help employees not only in the future, but also in their current roles, since those who care deeply about being as effective as possible in their current role will often be strong candidates for leadership in the future. Linking leadership development with an externally validated and recognized qualification can also be a powerful incentive and a good way of rewarding those who put the time in.
5. Consider partnering with a third party
Over half (57%) of respondents said that their leadership development programs are largely designed and delivered internally, while only 9% said they were designed and delivered by third parties. Though internal provision may seem easier to align with business objectives, it is more effective to tell a dedicated leadership development provider what your business needs are than it is to teach an internal resource to become a specialist in leadership development.
The right third-party provider will work with you to build a tailored program from the ground up, helping to create and nurture a culture that has learning and development at its core. For some enterprises, this will be a big shift, but a culture cantered around learning and development is quickly becoming a condition for success in the face of continuously shifting skills for roles across organizations. Leadership development helps organizations respond to challenges and opportunities in the present and build bridges to the future by stimulating and supporting the ingenuity of their people. It’s demanding, high stakes work, but getting it right can make a positive difference for both companies and their people.