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Leading Off
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Leadership development programs are a thriving business. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the market was estimated to be worth more than $50 billion, and it is one of the few learning and development markets that continues to grow despite other economic trends. Yet over the decades, organizations have been consistently dissatisfied with the results of their leadership training efforts. For example, only 11 percent of executives in a McKinsey study believe that their leadership development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results. Strong leadership is more critical than ever as the world grapples with crisis and uncertainty. This week, let’s explore what’s missing in leadership training programs and how to adjust them to the needs of a new generation of leaders.
Illustration of two people leading a workplace seminar
Be rigorous and specific in your training efforts
A one-size-fits-all program that develops generic leadership competencies is unlikely to suit the unique objectives of your organization. One company held a workshop to help leaders foster a “more global mindset”—with little discussion as to why a global mindset was essential to the company strategy to begin with or what participants should do differently in their daily work. A more effective approach is to rigorously connect your organization’s objectives with the critical leadership behaviors needed to achieve them. For example, an oil and gas company might emphasize operational discipline and safety, whereas a private-equity investment firm might value swift decision making and action. Clearly identify the gap that the leadership development program needs to fill, and focus on a few priority behaviors rather than making sweeping changes all at once.
That’s the number of fundamental leadership traits that correlate closely with organizational performance and should be at the center of any leadership development program. These characteristics include simple but effective tactics such as facilitating group collaboration, giving praise, and being supportive; in turn, they fall under the four broader leadership qualities of insight, integrity, courage, and agility. Collectively, these four attributes have the power to drive the kind of sustained innovation that can take organizations in bold new directions.
“Corporations are victims of the great training robbery.”
With that provocative statement, the authors of this Harvard Business Review article launch into a critique of why most leadership development programs don’t deliver a good return on investment. A key reason is context: even highly motivated participants fail to apply what they have learned because their units are still entrenched in the old ways of doing things. Individual development, therefore, needs to come after organizational redesign. And since each region, function, and operating group has its own unique needs, senior leaders should consider a unit-by-unit change strategy that integrates individual education with organizational development objectives. Context is a critical element of successful leadership, and providing it involves equipping leaders with a small group of capabilities that will make a significant difference to performance.
Image of David Gergen
“We need to prepare the leaders of the future—people who are going to return this country to a better place,” says former presidential adviser David Gergen. In this McKinsey Author Talks interview, Gergen calls for a younger generation of leaders to tackle urgent issues such as economic challenges, racial inequities, and climate problems. He advises that doing so will require a hard head and a soft heart: “Both things are important. You do need someone who’s tough. . . . [But] an important element of leadership today is to understand the little guy, to understand the women who’ve been discriminated against, to understand the people of color who’ve been discriminated against, and to join them in trying to make their lives better.”
Image of ripples in a water puddle
Many of the favored leadership qualities of yesteryear—assertiveness, charm, charisma, risk taking—aren’t necessarily the ones that organizations choose to develop today. Increasingly, companies are looking for leaders who demonstrate humility, empathy, and the ability to look beyond their own self-interest. People-focused traits such as integrity, ethics, connectedness, and awareness of social-justice issues are increasing in importance, and more organizations offer specialized programs to develop leadership character.
Lead by developing good leaders.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford, Connecticut, office
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