- The problem
HBR October 2016 article “Why Leadership Training Fails” by Beer, Finnstrom and Scrhrader poses a radical rethink on training. Organisations spent US$356 billion on training in 2015 with questionable returns. The implications are uncomfortable. We take it seriously. To serve our clients we have to work at this.
In a nutshell, training does not stick. People revert to what they have done in the past. The organisational context – the system – pushes them back. Their conclusion is:
- Senior executives must attend to organisational design – system change, and
- Link training to unit-by-unit, strategic initiatives that demand new behaviour
This research should send cold shivers down many spines. Intuitively, we know it is right. Yet the solution is complex and difficult work. Leaders and training professionals will duck for cover. The current approach to leadership training simply requires us to match an identified need with a suitable course. Once complete the “box is ticked” and we can move on with confidence.
We are kidding ourselves, wasting money and confusing people.
- Solutions start at the top
The CEO and executive team define the strategic goals of each business unit AND the new behaviours required. Business unit leaders have to own this, modelling these new behaviours themselves AND demanding these behaviours from others.
Imagine the resistance – passive and active – at the executive table? We think; “much easier to send difficult people to training to be fixed.”
We have only begun. New behaviours will be clunky, awkward and slow. Business, despite the endless clamour for change, transformation or creativity, rarely considers how to cultivate expertise in these new behaviours.
- Enter the science of expert performance
Let’s imagine we want to take an elite squash player and teach them to play top-level tennis. We start by moving them from squash to tennis court (system change). Next they have to learn the rules and process. Then on to the basic elements of a game – serving, volley, backhand, forehand, etc. Imagine how many times a grand slam champion has practiced a cross-court backhand? And this is before they get into a real game. Putting all of these “behaviours” into a game plan to win…? We are tired just thinking about it.
How easy it is under pressure for this athlete to revert to a squash behaviour?
Welcome to the world of deliberate practice – specific goals, focused repetition, expert coaching and feedback. Much of this practice is done way outside of the comfort zone. So demanding is the cultivation of new behaviours that these experts have elaborate support systems to ensure that they can survive the process.
Can this work in an organisation?
- What is required of us?
- Fix the obvious
Organisational life is neither rational nor sustainable. In short, people are sleep deprived, unfit, anxious, overloaded, frustrated and cynical. If we are serious about leadership, transformation and success, there is low hanging fruit to gather. Courage is needed to create an organisational environment that demands people be at their best. We have to treat our people – leaders included – more like we would athletes or our children.
- Leaders must step up
Great leadership is transformative. Bad leadership can destroy a business unit. There is too much variability. Some leaders are hopelessly overloaded, some just cruising on past success. Few leadership teams are deliberate in defining the exact behaviours required. As above, leaders must explicitly model the resilience, empathy, focus and creativity required of their teams. Leadership must be measured on how well their people demonstrate these behaviours.
- Get serious about skill
The acceleration in the science and practice of elite performance has transformed sport and art. The 10,000-hour rule of specific, purposeful, deliberate and demanding practice has yet to hit the business world. We relegate training to a workshop or two over the year. What if we spent 10 years practicing to perfection a good coaching conversation; a team meeting; or client pitch? Methodological, long-term pursuit of excellence in the key behaviours will define whether your business thrives or fades.
- Support the heck out of people
Elite performers need proper support. Consider the All Blacks whose leadership is split three ways. Coaching of specific skills in each position, player wellbeing to secure optimal vitality and player logistics to get everyone to the right place in the right state. This may be the fastest growing job opportunity in the next 20 years. Successful organisations will need teams of experts to extract – through coaching in deliberate practice – the best from people.
Transformation takes time – strategy, structure, leadership focus, support systems and measurement. In short, we must move from the workshop to a multi-year adaptive programme that engages every leader and person in the team in the behaviour of excellence. It is not for everyone. It is inescapable for those organisations seeking greatness.
- Relentless curiosity
Lot to study, practice, learn and adjust to. There are so many ways. We are at the beginning of the journey to master our wellbeing, our emotions and our minds.