Effective Leadership

By Richard Citrin and Michael Couch

When the Tech Council unveiled this year’s Tech 50 innovators who are disrupting their markets, it brought to mind the innovations that are turning the field of leadership development on its ear. U.S. companies annually spend more than $13 billion on leadership development, but there’s scant evidence that that investment provides much of a return. Our leaders are just not doing what we have been trying to train them to do . . . and that, we have found, is the problem. Organizations have long taken a failed training approach to developing their leaders, typically an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all, once-a-year, classroom or event-based program that all leaders must attend. Fortunately, there are a number of innovations that can assure a return on the time and resources invested in developing your current and future leaders. We will unveil five that we have found to make the biggest difference.

Establish a Planned and Targeted Impact. Neuroscience has shown that certain neurochemicals need to be released in our brains to create a state where we are curious and open to learn something new. The levels of those chemicals increase when we see value and relevance in a situation. We never embark on a development initiative or coaching assignment until a clear link is established to a meaningful business or personal outcome. Learners create “impact maps” to document the context and to make the development intentional. Learners also use the maps to track their progress and the impact of their efforts. The maps, therefore, are unique to each learner.

Build It In, Don’t Bolt It On. Research conducted at the Center for Creative Leadership and subsequent global studies has determined that the key means by which we develop critical leadership skills is from navigating a variety of challenging experiences. Therefore, for development to be effective, it must be built into the challenges we face every day and cannot be seen as something extra that has to be added to an already busy schedule. We
work with learners to specifically identify existing or new challenges that can be used as skill-building opportunities and to increase their ability to learn from the experience.

Focus on Mission-Critical Competencies. We like to use the phrase, “You can’t be it until you see it” when we talk about this component of effective development. The “it” needs to be a few mission-critical, behavior-based competencies derived from the company’s strategy and not a long, exhausting list of skills. Customizing and personalizing development in this fashion has been shown to be a key in optimizing learning and retention. The fewer competencies that are included in a leadership development plan, the more likely the learner will make progress and have an impact with new skills.

Never Learn Alone. Humans are intensely social beings. There seems to be a neurological basis for our social bias. Research has confirmed that, as David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute has stated, “The human brain is a social organ. Its physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction…the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.” We leverage this social bias in leadership development by employing development cohorts. Cohorts are small groups of leaders that offer a safe environment for building new skills, establish a trusted network of peers and provide a source of objective feedback outside of their normal channels. We also encourage the members of cohorts to select “accountability partners” with whom they can review progress and commit to specific follow-up.

Create Future Memories. This development innovation builds off the neuroscience associated with the concept of implementation intentions and nudges theory from the field of behavioral economics. Individuals will more likely
take rational action or learn a new skill if they prepare in advance for what to do in a particular situation. Swedish psychiatrist and neuroscientist David Ingvar described this unique capacity of the human brain as the ability to create “memories of the future.” As part of their intentional development, we ask learners to come up with “mantras” or “nudges.” These are short statements in the form of “If I find myself in this situation, I am going to do this, so that I achieve such and such an outcome.” The “If’s” are work challenges where improved performance would make a difference in the learner’s performance. The “Then’s” are linked directly to targeted competencies that the
learner would like to try out, do more of, do differently, or do better. The “So that’s” are the benefi ts or impacts that the learner expects to see from applying the competency (from their impact map).

Michael and Richard are the co-authors of “Strategy-Driven Leadership” to be released in November 2019 by Productivity Press. You can reach Michael at michael@mcassociatesinc.com and Richard at Richard@citrinconsulting.com