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Developing Leaders in Your Organization: Start with the End in Mind


Ron Ivey

Date Published

Apr 22, 2016
7 minute read

When it comes to the task of developing leaders, the one constant we have seen in our work at The Clearing has been change. Or should we call it “VUCA”? “VUCA” is a term coined by US military planners in the 1990s to describe the four qualities of an increasingly complex world: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. These qualities apply to the marketplace just as well as the battlefield. The expectations for our leaders are changing. In the past, we wanted our leaders to steer a steady course for a point on the horizon. Now, we expect our leaders to adapt and respond to a host of challenges and changes in near-real time. How do we prepare our management teams for such an incredibly complicated, demanding task? At The Clearing, we have learned to combat the complexity and challenges that persist with simplicity, strategy, and flexibility. To aid this, we have distilled lessons from big thinkers, impactful leaders, and decades of experiments into consumable leadership distinctions to be deployed contextually. We call these distinctions PRIMES.

In our upcoming series on Leadership Development, we will dive into a number of PRIMES related to preparing today’s leaders and explore the following topics:

  • Using Action and Experimentation to Develop Leaders
  • The Leader as Coach: How the Best Leaders Develop Others
  • Loving the Leap: Making the Transition to a New Leadership Opportunity

This week, we will start with what most organizations consider the end of the process: evaluating leadership development programs. In our work as strategists, we often tell our clients to start with the end in mind. Focus first on the outcomes they hope to achieve. The same is true when investing in a leadership development program. To be successful, you must start with a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish through the program.

This is a key insight that often gets lost in the discussions about leadership development. Often, organizations think that a training event is enough to solve the problem. This gives individuals the chance to step away from their “day job” to learn new skills and grow. The challenge is, while a few may learn new skills, the organization still operates the same way, so it is easy for the group to slip back into the old habits and ways of doing things. Think of a rubber band that has been stretched then suddenly snaps back to its old shape. Or, when it comes to leadership development, individuals involved focus on vague, personal goals without a concrete plan to apply what they have learned to the realities of their organization. The training becomes something interesting versus something that leads to tangible outcomes. We call this phenomenon CHASE-LOSE. If you chase vague notions of leadership, innovation, or team unity you lose performance. However, if you chase outcomes together, you build these attributes in the process.

Therefore, the objective of any leadership development program is to increase the capability and capacity of its leaders so that the organization achieves its outcomes.

Some of the symptoms of a systemic deficit of leadership capability include:

  • Inertia: The organization has set a goal but is not making progress toward it. Your leaders know what they want, but not how to get there.
  • Cultural Incongruence: A difference exists between the culture that you promote and the culture that your employees and customers experience.
  • Tenure and Turnover: You are having trouble attracting and retaining top talent.
  • Succession Planning Risk: A leadership change is looming and you lack the next generation of leaders.
  • Low Performance: Results from the organization’s initiatives are not living up to what you have experienced in the past.
  • Paralysis: The organization is stuck in the face of thorny, seemingly intractable problems.

If you need to solve these types of problems for your organization, here is a helpful framework we use at The Clearing to design leadership development programs that actually improve performance. We call this PRIME COURT-LOCKER ROOM. Every winning team knows that a lot goes into preparing you for the game and it is ultimately what happens on the court that determines your fate. The same is true for you and your team. To move from where you are (AS IS) to where you need or want to be (TO BE) requires action and getting “On the Court.” Our bias is toward action, outfitting the team to execute, experiment, and course-correct as you go. But creating a space to plan the plays and ready the team is critical, which is why we always recommend adding the training “In Locker Room” and individualized time “With the Coach” as components to our Leadership Development framework:

  1. On the Court: Use Action & Experimentation to Spur Learning
    Form a team to achieve specific organizational outcomes. Augment the team with experts and outfit them with the necessary insight to achieve their goals. Coach them as they apply these lessons to pressing business challenges. When a new constraint or opportunity comes up, use this as an opportunity to teach the team in the moment to problem solve as they work together. Think of the rescue scene in the movie The Matrix. The heroine, Trinity, must fly a helicopter to rescue her teammate and downloads the ability to fly the aircraft right as she is about to do just that. You want to provide just-in-time insight for immediate action.
  2. In the Locker Room: Equip Your Teams with Insight and Distinctions to Build Confidence 
    At certain points, you will need traditional classroom based training to ground your team with leadership fundamentals. Equip your team with best practices grounded in research and the experience of successful leaders to build confidence, depth of knowledge, and mastery of leadership insights. We use The PRIMES to do this quickly and effectively.
  3. With the Coach: Use Coaching to Personalize Insight and Personal Transformation
    Design intensive one-on-one coaching for specific members of the organization to boost transformation. Use this high-touch developmental relationship to give executives, key leadership staff, and emerging leaders personalized feedback to optimize learning done “On the Court” and “In the Locker Room.”
  4. Keep Score: Measure the Performance of the LD Program based on Organizational Performance 
    Ultimately, you need to build a link between organization targets and those participating in the program. If you are trying to increase revenue generated by your business development function, you may want to implement leadership development programs that focus on sales negotiations and personal networking. Subsequently, your pipeline and revenue figures will tell you if the training has been successful or not. The same method would apply for coaching and training delivered to managers of high-turnover departments: if retention increases, the leadership development program has succeeded. This kind of hard tethering of leadership development to company goals does not come easily, and it may not feel natural when working to build the so-called “soft skills.” But in an environment where we’re all facing “VUCA,” it is the only way to ensure you are making progress when developing your leaders.

If you are interested in improving your existing leadership development program or designing a new one, The Clearing has applied the principles outlined above in our Leading with The PRIMES leadership development program.