Launching a leadership development programme

When organisations look to embark on a leadership development programme, the goal is to create a lasting positive change. But achieving a cultural or behavioural transformation isn’t as simple as bringing in consultants to run a programme. When the right foundations aren’t in place, the change is often short-lived and may even fail to take root at all.

To understand more about what those essential foundations are and how to put them in place, we’re speaking to Marcus de Vasconcelos,  Partner at TPC Leadership Switzerland, and Frédéric Lhospied, Managing Partner at TPC Leadership France, for their insight into what organisations need for a successful leadership development programme.

While there are no simple solutions, three elements are essential to give a leadership development programme a chance to deliver real results. 

1) A clear vision and purpose

It all begins with a clear vision and purpose for the programme. A leadership development programme should be seen as a transformational initiative, and like any initiative it needs thorough planning before any work can begin. Without a distinct purpose, it risks being development for development’s sake, and the changes are unlikely to be as far-reaching or long-lasting as you had hoped.

What is the motivation for seeking leadership development? What kind of cultural transformation are you hoping to achieve, and why is it needed? And when it comes to the end of the programme, how are you going to evaluate its impact?

Defining this purpose is often a collaborative effort. “Sometimes clients aren’t aware of the importance of their contribution in the process,” Frédéric says. “You need an iterative approach, with discussions and meetings to find what’s needed.”

While answering those questions, it’s important to keep your goals reasonable. A leadership development programme isn’t going to deliver an overnight shift in culture or business outcomes by itself. If you put too much pressure on the programme from the outset, the result is likely to be disappointing.

“It’s dangerous to expect a leadership development programme to do everything for you,” Marcus says. “It’s not the case that if you do X, you get Y. It has to be seen as one part of a holistic transformation.”

One business the TPC Leadership team had discussions with was still trying to choose a leadership development partner a few short weeks before their cultural transformation programme was due to start.

“For them, the leadership development programme was an afterthought,” says Marcus. “And that’s where the danger lies. It has to be considered as integral to transformation. If it isn’t, then the expectation for what it can deliver will always be too high.”

2) A culture that is committed to change

For a leadership development programme to be successful, the participants and the overall culture of the organisation also need to be open to change. Development isn’t something that can be mandated. It takes a significant degree of buy-in – on an individual and a company-wide level – for the effects to truly be felt.

To some extent this willingness to try a different approach is inevitable. In the US there is a growing trend of people citing “toxic culture” as their main reason for leaving an organisation. Signs of a similar trend are emerging in European businesses too, as a healthy, supportive work environment climbs the list of priorities for employees. The wider culture is changing, and businesses need to follow.

“This trend is going to have an impact on leaders in a positive way,” Frédéric says. 

Marcus adds: “In the past leaders could become complacent, allowing this toxic culture to embed itself in the organisation. Nowadays values, purpose, developing people and supporting the ‘right’ culture are a crucial aspect of any leadership role. A leader who is not sufficiently self-aware will not be able to thrive or help others thrive.”

One way to encourage the ‘right’ culture is by fostering a commitment to making change happen. This goes beyond investing in leadership development programmes. It also means carving out the appropriate time and space for participants to engage with the programme, and accepting that it is a long term initiative rather than a quick-fix.

“Leadership development has to be seen as a continuous endeavour,” Marcus says. “It can’t be something you do now and don’t look at for another decade.”

It takes time – not to mention patience – to grow a culture that’s ready to accept a new direction. Barriers to change are notoriously stubborn, especially when longstanding ways of working are concerned. Without that foundation in place, the seeds sown by a leadership development programme will almost always fall on hard ground.

“If the culture isn’t there you might still end up developing some people,” Marcus says. “But they will find they’re left to fend for themselves in an environment that doesn’t really support what they’ve learned. In the end, their behaviours will fall back in line with their environment.”

3) A willingness to embrace self-leadership

Finally, there needs to be a willingness at a senior level to embrace self-leadership.

 Often a senior executive will ask for a development programme for his or her direct reports. But for that programme to be successful, those same senior members have to be ready to role model the changes they expect from others. Without this – “the tone at the top” – it becomes extremely difficult to ask middle managers and employees to do what they don’t see reflected elsewhere in the organisation.

“If you really want your organisation to evolve it starts with you,” says Frédéric. “If the CEO and board members aren’t prepared to move with their direct reports, the impact of what we do is going to be peanuts.”

The problem for many organisations is that their senior leadership’s priorities are rarely in line with role modelling this change. Even in the most enlightened companies, people are rewarded most of all on the basis of their short-term performance on tangible achievements. Very quickly, self-awareness becomes much lower priority compared to business outcomes that translate more directly to bonuses and promotions.

By making sure the behaviours the company wants to see are rewarded as well, self-leadership can be woven into the roles of managers and senior leaders. And as they develop self-awareness of how their behaviours impact others, that in turn will change what their reports are prepared to do around them. Not only does this help their team become a more cohesive, motivated unit, it also helps the desired change to filter through the organisation.

“What you need is to get critical mass,” says Marcus. “When you’ve got enough people who support the new culture and behaviours, they can champion leadership development in the whole organisation.” 

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