Ensuring our leadership programmes succeed

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Professor Paul Gentle, director of programmes at the Leadership Foundation responds to McKinsey’s Why leadership development programs fail  

An article in McKinsey Quarterly last year put forward four key reasons why leadership development programmes can fail. This has provoked interesting reflection at the Leadership Foundation and coincided with a year in which we have become particularly thoughtful about how our programmes meet the needs of leaders and managers in our higher education institutions. Here, I’ve turned the four key reasons for failure into four essentials which we take constantly into account when designing our programmes, whether for the open market or on a more tailored basis for specific institutions.

The first concerns the importance of context for participants on all our programmes. We don’t start with a blank sheet, and we certainly don’t work to a list of leadership competencies which we think need to be ‘taught’ on our programmes. Providing an environment of trust and collaboration in which thinking through one’s own leadership challenges in its real institutional setting is critical to the learning experiences we facilitate. In practice, this means stimulating thinking in participants through a combination of encounters with leaders from a range of organisations (both within and beyond the higher education sector) and peer discussion. Reflecting comparatively between institutions can be powerful in developing more profound understanding of one’s own context.

The second essential is about connecting to on-the-job learning. In line with androgogical good practice for student learning, the Leadership Foundation takes heed of the finding that only 10% of what is communicated in lectures is retained. The emphasis on our programmes is firmly on learning by doing, and linking planned actions by individual participants to their jobs is crucial. In many programmes, using an organisational project serves as a key vehicle for leadership learning. For example, on our new Executive Leaders programme, participants are expected to carry out an internal project which requires them to make contact and work with members of their institutional senior management team in order to gain practical insights into how they deliver on their strategic portfolios.

Thirdly, it’s important to address underlying assumptions affecting leaders’ behaviour. Whatever actions individuals may commit to in terms of changing what they do, there may well be factors which make them immune to actually changing (Kegan and Lahey, 2009). We encourage our participants to think about what they do in relation to the organisational culture of their institution, or the part of the institution which they can influence. Emphasising the greater significance of what leaders do, compared to what they say, is really important, and often overlooked in the volatile, pressured environment in which universities are operating. On the Strategic Leadership Programme, for instance, gaining deep understanding of the institutional culture, and how leaders contribute to this individually and collectively, is central to the programme design.

Finally, planning for impact is essential when designing programmes. We’re upfront about the fact that a programme cannot be a ‘silver bullet’ solution which will have a transformational effect in itself. Research shows that how individual participants and their institutions follow up on their learning from the programme links directly to the impact a programme will make. Ongoing dialogue is crucial, particularly with those who have an interest in the individual leader making changes happen. These might include direct reports and line managers who have provided feedback in a 360-degree appraisal process (often included in a Leadership Foundation programme). The Leadership Foundation has recognised the importance of keeping reflection and conversation alive in the months following the end of a programme, and the Programme Plus option is a good example of how this works. For a small fee, participants can choose to have ongoing phone conversations with one of our facilitators who will help to guide them in implementing actions and gathering evidence of their impact. Evidence shows that this is a powerful way of continuing to think about key learning points from a programme – and it can also lead to successful applications for Fellowship of the Leadership Foundation.

Designing in-house programmes for individual institutions involves putting all these essentials into practice, and works most effectively when it works in a spirit of partnership between the university or higher education college and the Leadership Foundation. We are uniquely well-placed to bring to bear our sector-wide knowledge and understanding of cultures and behaviours in the contemporary higher education context to meet the needs of institutions.

The ultimate aim of all our programmes is to make a difference to institutions, and the impact of each programme depends crucially on the learning experienced by individuals who take part. An open-minded disposition towards learning from and with others is likely to enhance benefits for the institution, particularly when the institution engages in dialogue about impact with those they have sponsored on programmes, both during and after the programme itself.

We are constantly refining our practices in all our programmes, and there is always work to do. Feedback from some participants on a recent open programme suggested that they perceived it as being too “facilitator-centric”; this led to further conversations with some respondents to learn more about what they would value in future, and we have now applied this to the design of the programme’s next run!

2015 promises to be another fast-paced and developmental year!

Professor Paul Gentle is director of programmes at the Leadership Foundation and his role includes managing and leading the Top Management Programme.