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Reaching a tipping point in leadership development

Leadership development at scale—where the goal is to sustainably shift the behaviors of an organization across the board—requires a tipping point for new leadership behaviors to take hold.
Andre Dua

Provides strategic counsel and advises on performance transformation to state and local governments as well as public and private universities and systems

Charlotte Relyea

Works closely with clients to build organizational capabilities to sustain long-term growth.

Why do some ideas, products, and behaviors take hold and spread like wildfire, while others never catch on? A popular theory on change cites three factors—reaching the right people, a “sticky” message, and a conducive context—to reach a critical mass and tipping point where real change takes hold.

Leadership development at scale—where the goal is to sustainably shift the behaviors of an organization across the board—requires a tipping point for new leadership behaviors to take hold. In our previous blog post, we outlined how to define the leadership model and behaviors an organization needs, based on it’s strategy and context. The next question then becomes, “Who should be engaged, and how, in the leadership development effort?”

Our research shows that sustainably shifting leadership behaviors across an entire organization requires engaging a critical mass of pivotal influencers across all levels of the organization, giving all employees an understanding of what great leadership looks like and moving quickly. For example, we found that organizations with successful leadership development interventions are 6.4 times more likely to ensure that leadership development covers the whole organization. Specifically, organizations must get three things right:

  1. Breadth: We interviewed more than 20 of our top leadership development experts to pinpoint the number of employees that organizations need to reach through formal leadership development interventions to reach a critical mass for change. While the number varies based on the organization’s context, the critical mass of people required to start things moving and build momentum might be as small as just 10 percent of the total population—if you get to the right critical influencers and build in an approach to cascade the change through your leaders (e.g. through an enterprise-wide leadership model and communication).
  2. Depth: Sustainably shifting behaviors on the job takes time and is not a one-time event. When we spoke with our experts, including neuroscientists, we found that it typically takes 6-9 months of intentional support for an individual; otherwise there is a risk that employees revert back to their old behaviors. Furthermore, interventions must be comprehensive and go beyond skill building and include elements such as on-the-job application of the new leadership behaviors, nudges, feedback and self-reflection.
  3. Pace: Our experience and case studies of successful leadership development transformations at scale find that, in general, faster is better in terms of program rollout. During organization-wide change efforts there is often a strong gravitational pull from the organization towards the old way of leading and working. To overcome this, organizations should aim to rapidly reach all employees through traditional change management and digital channels, while in parallel executing the more in-depth learning interventions for the pivotal influencers.

One company, a global leader in pharmaceuticals and consumer health products, reaped the benefits from applying these principles. To support a new organizational structure and commercial strategy, the company launched a Change Accelerator program that was rolled out to over 120 countries globally within 6 months, reaching over 1,000 leaders. Each leader was tasked with bringing the strategy and new way of working forward to their teams. Leaders emphasized that the program helped shift mindsets, delivered actionable insights and energized their teams. At an organizational level, the company outperformed the industry over the 5-year period when the program was being rolled out in terms of total returns to shareholders, and also helped increased sales by 25%, moving the organization to the second largest in the industry.

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Engaging a critical mass of pivotal influencers is the second of four core principles we outline in McKinsey’s new book, Leadership at Scale. Our next blog post in this series will outline the 7 key adult learning principles that we apply in our leadership development approach to maximize the degree of behavioral change and impact of the program.

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