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Is Leadership Development the Answer to Low Employee Engagement? (Yes.)

This White Paper is excerpted and adapted from Ultra Leadership: Go Beyond Usual and Ordinary to Engage Others and Lead Real Change (Giuliano, Lioncrest, 2016).

Where are we?

90% of leaders think an engagement strategy is important while only 25% of organizations have one (ACCOR). Research by Gallup, as reported in The State of the American Workplace in 2013, discovered that roughly 70% of workers were disengaged. A 2001 study by the Hay Group indicated a 2.5x revenue increase for companies with high engagement levels. In 2004 the Corporate Executive Board’s research showed an 87% decrease in the likelihood of departure for highly engaged employees.

The problem is leadership on autopilot.

Workers show up; they are at their desks, but they are not as engaged as they could be. They are not willingly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly saying ‘yes’ when asked to contribute and participate. We can’t fix a problem until we acknowledge it. When we ignore a problem, we exist in it. In such an underperforming state, without leadership that can drive real change, organizations are trapped in a vicious cycle. It’s business as usual. Business moves along. We do more and produce less. We turn unconsciously to outcomes. We keep our focus narrow. We chase short-term wins.

A 2012 Custom Insight survey revealed that 49% of workers cited problems with their direct supervisor as their reason for disengagement. Disengaged teams stem from disengaged leaders.

Disengaged leaders do not want to abandon the status quo. They go after short-term wins and cannot lift their heads high enough to glimpse the future. Rather than address the problem, they switch into survival mode and use the phone-it-in, tick-the-box approach. The problem is leadership on autopilot. Organizations wanting to reengage people and drive real change must realize that leadership is the determining factor. This paper is about rethinking the practice of leadership and reforming the way we approach the development of leaders and leadership in our organizations. What is expected of leadership today? What shifts must learning and development professionals make in order to create an environment of continuous learning that accelerates development and quickly and positively impacts the business in real and tangible ways?

Rethinking Leadership.

Every day, in every meeting, in every situation, there is a void. An opportunity exists to step in and lead. Beth (name changed) is a senior leader at one of our client organizations. She is always looking for the void. In fact, she is an expert at finding the void and stepping into it. This ability demonstrates the power of choice: the choice to lead. Leadership must see the power of choice in every moment, when it is time to choose between doing business as usual or stepping up to real and more impactful leadership.

If we look around and see that people are disengaged, that leaders are driving toward tactical outcomes and short-term wins, and that organizations are blindly driving ahead. then we begin to see something happening below the surface. Simply put, the underlying factor in the success rate of engaging our workforce and delivering change is leadership. The underlying common denominator is a failure of leadership that permeates today’s workplace.

It is time to reimagine leadership: what it means in theory and what it means in practice, how we choose leaders, how we develop leaders, and what we ask of leaders. Leaders are expected to move things forward: the organization (business), the teams that do the work, and each individual on those teams. In fact, Arie de Geus, says that leadership must “create the conditions in which people will voluntarily give their best.” In 1990, John W. Gardner defined leadership this way: “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual or a leadership team induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers.” In Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, another Gardner, Howard Gardner, defined leadership as “an individual who significantly affects the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a significant number of individuals.” Both definitions are partially correct; and, there is a piece missing.

Ultra-runners push boundaries by running extreme distances, sometimes as long as thirty, fifty, or one hundred miles or more. Such endeavors go beyond usual and ordinary. Organizations need leaders who, like ultra-runners, are not afraid of pushing the limits. We can weave this will to push the limits into our definition of leadership. Our simplified definition of leadership is this:

Leadership requires the will to push the limits combined with the skill to get people to willingly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly engage and contribute to important work.

John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” When we push the limits, we learn. We begin to live and lead from a creative rather than a reactive viewpoint. It’s critical to encourage leaders to embark on an ongoing journey that develops a capacity to lead others effectively, efficiently, and for years to come. It is therefor incumbent upon learning and development professionals to also be on a journey of continuous improvement and evolution of the methods by which we facilitate and guide the learning journey of leaders and enable more impactful and relevant leadership development.

Leadership requires the will to push the limits combined with the skills to get people to willingly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly engage and contribute to important work.

Next Practices.

Unprepared leaders lack the skill and drive to step into the void and take up the challenge of engaging, supporting, and developing a team of people. Unprepared leaders develop work-arounds. The reason they do so is to avoid the hard work of leading people.

Heisman winner and Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota says, “Sometimes as a leader, you have to…hold people accountable and call them out on things, and that’s not an easy thing to do by any stretch.” We certainly don’t prepare leaders to do this. So they don’t. They develop work-arounds. Work-arounds aid the person who has not yet developed the skills to lead properly.

Research published in Harvard Business Review’s 2016 State of Leadership Development Study, indicated that only about 33% of Line-of-Business respondents said that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in development programs. A growing problem (or opportunity) for learning and development professionals is the finding in HBR’s 2018 study that while 67% of boomers describe current L&D offerings as excellent, only 40% of millennials do. The millennials in the respondent pool of Harvard Business Review’s 2018 State of Leadership Development Study question the relevancy of their organizations’ leadership development programs to a much greater extent than the boomers do. Only about 50% said they see strong alignment between leadership development programming content and the business issues facing their organizations, including any transformation efforts underway.

Our track record and current reality demand that we expand our leadership development perspective. Our experience and research in leadership development and adult learning demonstrate that learning is most impactful when it has a strong business context, takes a multi-dimensional approach, and is a self-directed and communal experience that happens over time with coaching support.

Taken together, these form a core of next practices in leadership development.

Business Relevance

To succeed, leadership development must rest upon and provide a strong business context. What do our leaders need to be good at in order to drive our business forward and sustain a positive culture that ensures high engagement and maximum contribution? How do learning and development activities align with the current and future needs of the business? How do learning and development activities impact people and the business immediately and consistently?

A Multi-dimensional Approach

Consider the myriad leadership competencies you have been asked to develop over the years. Line them up horizontally from left to right. They represent one axis of leadership development: coaching, problem-solving, decision-making, influencing, planning, delegating, financial analyzing, presenting, giving feedback, listening, inquiring, team managing, negotiating, visioning, strategic thinking, organizing, collaborating—the list goes on and on. We may learn these competencies through leadership training. Think of the competencies on this horizontal axis as the techniques or “applications” of effective leadership. We rely on these apps to help us successfully navigate various circumstances and situations.

It is important to develop these apps, and the techniques associated with applying them, but what about the operating system that runs them? After all, some apps do not run on old antiquated operating systems. To run the numerous apps associated with leadership, we must update our personal operating system regularly. How? By focusing attention on a vertical axis of leadership development and encouraging personal, cognitive, and emotional growth in addition to adding apps through competency training along the horizontal axis. When we take a multidimensional approach to leadership development, by integrating horizontal axis training and vertical axis development, we increase our ability to push the limits and inspire others to come with us. This is important because at the end of the day, all development is mental development.

A multidimensional approach to leadership development means encouraging leaders to make the intentional decision to step out of their comfort zones of competence. Some may be engineers, marketers, finance directors, or salespersons. We need those individuals to undertake a journey of mental development that grows their conscious competence with leadership that enables them to more fluidly and effectively engage others and drive real change.

The hard work of powerful leadership development means asking the hard questions.

  • What are the things that hold me back?
  • What keeps me from fully engaging and impacting people in a positive way?
  • What gets in the way of my being the best leader possible?

I’ve met and worked with many brilliant and dedicated learning and development professionals over the years. Their contributions to the field cannot be underestimated or over appreciated. They deserve our respect and gratitude. It’s important to make clear that traditional leadership development—the philosophies and tactics that for decades have been used to grow and mature organizations—has produced some very positive results and made the workplace better for many.

Like anything that we use over and over again, the process eventually grows stale, and the results dwindle. We know this is true from the many studies that indicate leadership and employee engagement reside at perilously low rates. The focus on competency training over personal development—true mental development—means that in many cases people are trained in a technique or tool but lack the cognitive and emotional capacity to know how, if, and when to best use that particular technique or tool.

Self-Directed and Communal

Our experience indicates that the more individuals own their learning process, the more accelerated their development will be. Rather than build and push content at learners, leadership development must also source and curate it to facilitate more direct ownership for learning and development. With input from their managers, peers, and teams, leaders know what they need to focus on when it comes to their development. Leadership development can shift from delivering learning events to facilitating an ongoing learning process that leaders can access in real time and virtually, via both formal and informal avenues allowing them to choose the curricula and focus that best suits their learning and development goals.

We’ve also learned that learners don’t commit time and energy to any program, course, or event. They do commit to engage with other people who share their experience. To be successful, learning and development activities must facilitate connection between and among learners allowing them to share their experiences and results with one another and to celebrate their successes as an outcome of the learning and development process.

Over Time, with Coaching Support

It would be amazing and unusual if we could achieve the learning outcomes we desire neatly into a two, three, or even multi-day event. The reality is that we just don’t learn that way. In our work with adult learners and leaders in particular, we have deployed a three-step process of learning and development that consistently holds true in helping individuals and groups to accelerate their development and learn a new way of being and leading. Learning that sticks and real personal development occurs when we engage in honest self-reflection and dialogue with others, and commit to practicing new ways of behaving and leading.

Self-reflection is critical to developing self-awareness and becoming an authentic and impactful leader. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” There’s power and truth in these words, especially if we want to lead others in important work.

And self-reflection is not enough. True, we become more self-aware through reflection, but our ability to act on a newfound awareness is strengthened and enhanced through dialogue with other people, including a dedicated coach whose job it is to reflect back, provide feedback, and guide practical application of introduced concepts and tools. When we engage another person in conversation about what we are discovering along the path to greater consciousness and leadership, we tend to gain an even deeper understanding of who we are and how we perform as leaders. Through dialogue with a coach, we can check our perceptions.

The leaders I coach know that I will ask them to engage with someone they trust in conversation regularly to get feedback about how they are performing. There is plenty of rationale for soliciting feedback on a regular basis, especially as part of any learning and development process. We need input and others’ perspectives to explore and measure the gap between what we intend and what others are experiencing under our leadership. Reflection and dialogue provide data we can use to make adjustments. The fact is, if we are not open to feedback, we are not on the path to more authentic and impactful leadership. When we stop learning, we stop leading.

Learning and development take time. As we encounter new concepts that challenge our status quo and new tools that feel clumsy at first, it is the practice of applying those concepts and practicing using those new tools over time where real learning takes hold and becomes the new reality for the leader.

The three-step process of learning is iterative. We encounter a new concept. We reflect on it. We talk about it with another person, our coach. We practice applying the concept and using a new tool. We reflect on that experience. We talk about what we learned. Doing this over and over helps us recreate our reality. That’s real development.

Real Results.

Our client is a large business software company. The objective was to build leadership capacity and ensure bench strength to fill the leadership pipeline as a significant percentage of its management ranks nears retirement age. The development experience we delivered followed the design principles espoused above. The program was a multi-dimensional learning experience incorporating a pre-program team survey, manager interviews, four days of in-person workshops to kickoff and conclude the experience, provide foundational concepts and tools, enable individualized curriculum selection, and facilitate the formation of small learning groups that would be self-directed and leader-led., self-directed learning activities, practical application opportunities, 1:1 leadership coaching, and mentoring by senior leaders.

Participants were surveyed at the conclusion of the closing workshop and again sixty days post-program. Scores on both surveys reset the benchmark inside the organization. One item of particular importance was, “As a result of this experience, I will be better able to engage my team.” Immediate Survey response average was 4.88 (out of 5). 60-days post program the average response was 4.85 (out of 5). Qualitative evidence suggests the program achieved the agreed objectives. Participating leaders indicate a high degree of learning and development and continued application of desired leadership concepts and tools resulting in stronger alignment and more effective communications that drive up employee engagement.

Conclusion.

Our people are simply not engaged. According to Gallup, the economic cost of low engagement alone is between $450 billion and $550 billion annually. Keeping people engaged and contributing as part of a high-performing team is the hard work of leadership. It requires focused intention and regular attention.

It is the responsibility of leadership to create shared clarity that sustains alignment. It is the responsibility of leadership to keep bench strength high and to be always building individual and team capacity. It is the responsibility of leadership to coordinate action to ensure smart and fast execution and delivery. To say that leadership is the key determinant of success in today’s business world is truer now than it ever was.

This reality raises the stakes for learning and development inside organizations. We must ensure that learning activities are business relevant, focus on learning as a process rather than events, encourage self-directed learning that is ongoing, provide both formal and informal opportunities for every employee, facilitate the formation and success of small learning communities, leverage coaches and mentors to support and accelerate personal development through ongoing reflection, dialogue, and practice.

Creating a pipeline of strong and shared leadership is the best next practice in the battle against decreasing employee engagement.

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