Sustainably shifting how an organization leads

Recently we attended a discussion in which a head of learning and development, delegated the task to build leadership capabilities, was now required to show results. However, building new leadership capabilities entails changing and learning new behaviors; few change after simply receiving training. This leader wasn’t set up for success, as the responsibility was not coupled with a broader mandate to tweak other organizational elements.

Most people change behavior and learn new competencies if superiors explain and role-model these new behaviors, and if incentive systems and the model and culture of an organization reinforce them. To create lasting impact at scale, organizations must adapt systems, processes and culture to enable the leadership program, accomplished through the influence model. Many leadership development interventions do not follow this approach. Indeed, culture initiatives and other health interventions are often run separately from leadership development, which not only diminishes the effectiveness of each initiative but, in worst case scenarios, confuses employees.

Our research suggests that leadership development is most successful if it is embedded in a set of organizational interventions that include – in addition to leadership development interventions – three elements:

  1. Senior leaders across the organization (especially the CEO and executive team) role-model behaviors. Organizations with successful leadership development programs are 4.9 times more likely to have senior leaders role-model desired behaviors in the context of the programs (for example, by acting as program faculty, project sponsors, mentors, or coaches).
  2. The organization communicates, fosters understanding, and creates conviction for the desired behaviors and competencies, across the organization, in a structured and deliberate way. This can be done by emphasizing that the organization is only as strong as its people, publicly committing to developing internal talent, and communicating the importance of the new way of leading.
  3. Formal mechanisms such as the performance management system, the talent review system, the organizational structure and key processes reinforce required changes in competencies. Organizations with successful leadership development programs are 5.6 times more likely to adapt their formal HR systems to reinforce the leadership model and desired behaviors (for example, recruiting, performance evaluation, compensation, and succession planning). Another key success factor is ensuring program objectives, metrics, tracking mechanisms and governance are clearly formulated and in place, which had a multiple of 3.3 times.

One consumer electronics company was facing a steep, multi-year performance decline, and leadership realized that the organization required reinvention. This was not only about strategy, processes and organization structures, but also cultural change. The organization invested in building leadership capabilities required for the transformation and established new practices focused on three critical behavioral themes: “Team up to excel,” “Eager to win,” and “Take ownership.” It started with the top team, which went through many sessions of addressing the elephants in the room, formulated their collective vision for the future, and practiced the new leadership behaviors.

The next challenge was getting the rest of the organization to this level. The organization embedded culture as one of its five transformation pillars, ensuring it was front and center. They then chose a holistic approach, not only focused on capability-building, but also creating the right external environment to enable the desired behavioral shifts. This included engaging their top 300 leaders in live summits, bringing the top 1,200 leaders through a structured leadership development journey, coaching leadership on the importance of role-modeling and specific symbolic actions to signal the change, and revamping the performance management system to link incentives to the extent that employees lived the desired behaviors.

The impact could be measured in two ways. First, share price recovered the dip from preceding years. Second, metrics tracking the extent to which the organization was living the new culture increased significantly.

In conclusion, organizations must ensure that the broader ecosystem directly supports and reinforces the shift in behaviors, skills and mindsets promoted by the leadership development program: the final core principle that we outline in our book, “Leadership at Scale.”

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