Cocktails, time and money are all you need to make a difference. But for really high-impact leadership development you need to focus on the Rule of Thirds and nine key elements.

There’s not a single competitive advantage any organisation has that doesn’t ultimately stem from decisions or actions taken by its people. And the biggest influence on the behaviour of those people is — of course — the quality of leadership they are exposed to.

Unsurprisingly then, leadership development is big business. Up-to-date figures are hard to come by, but annual spend in the US alone is most likely around $15bn, which makes global investment roughly double that. That’s an awful lot of money by any standard. Clearly a lot of organisations see significant benefit in spending heavily on this activity.

But here’s the thing; leadership development is actually pretty easy. If you just want to make your leaders better than they currently are then there are two simple things you can do that will deliver results.

Great leadership development —  the sort that gives you a competitive advantage and delivers measurable results — is much harder. It has to be, otherwise everyone would do it — and it is absolutely worth the effort. To create leadership development that is genuinely high impact requires an understanding of the Rule of Thirds.

The rule of thirds: cocktails and introspection, leadership development 101 — and the holy grail, nine ways to make it great.

The Rule of Thirds is a simple model to help understand this in more detail. Let’s look at each of the elements in the below diagram in turn.

1. Cocktails and introspection

I really benefited from time away from the office to clear my head and think about my role as a leader.”

How often have you heard that from a participant after a leadership development program? The simple fact is that a significant developmental benefit comes simply from giving leaders time to think about something other than the day job. Lock them in a hotel with nothing more than free cocktails and their peers, tell them to think about how to be a better leader, and they’ll come up with some good insights.

Everyone can define what they think “good leadership” looks like. So remove the distractions and give your leaders time to mull this over, and they will inevitably come up with some ways that they could improve their performance. You don’t need to do anything more than this — no training, no assessment, no leadership theory — to see some improvement.

Around a third of the benefits of leadership development comes from simply providing the space, physical and mental, for leaders to think about leading.

2. Leadership development 101

But we can do better than that, and most organisations feel the need to accompany the cocktails and spa resort with something that looks like structured learning.

So let’s define the leadership capabilities we need, and find a vendor to deliver some content. Since time began, all leaders have needed to be good at strategy, communication and decision making, so those are a given. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of empathy, resilience and a growth mindset, and skills such as design thinking are having a moment, so we should include something on that. And every leader needs to think about the impact of robots and automation. That’s a pretty solid curriculum that touches on most topics.

Finding a vendor to design and deliver something doesn’t need to be too complicated either. As we’ve seen, the market is enormous so there are plenty to choose from. And it’scompetitive, which means most vendors offer decent quality or they don’t survive. So talk to one of your current vendors or pick one online. It won’t take long to find a vendor who has a course or workshops that cover the above curriculum. Agree dates, times, budgets and hit “go”.

A straightforward, not to say generic, leadership offering plus the time and space to think will give you two thirds of the potential benefit you can expect to get from investing in your leaders. The final third — the activity that gives you great leadership development, the sort that delivers a competitive advantage and performance uplift — requires something else.

3. Nine ways to make your leadership development great

Cocktails and generic content will help, but genuinely high-impact leadership development contains nine crucial elements:

  • Customer-driven; Your customers must be at the heart of defining ”good leadership”. This includes shareholders, investors, analysts, regulators and clients. They should be prominent not just in the design, but also the delivery. Don’t just talkabout the voice of the customer, let your leaders hear it in the room.
  • Leader-led; Senior leaders should be engaged in the design and conspicuous in their sponsorship. Leader-led activity — C-Suite figures presenting sessions, sponsoring cohorts, sharing their leadership experiences — is key to the credibility, impact and prestige of your leadership development.
  • Aligned; Leadership development cannot be an isolated activity. The capabilities you build should be aligned to all other people-related activity: recruitment, performance management, reward, promotion and succession planning.
  • Blended; Development should not start and end in the classroom. The right mix of eLearning, assessment, coaching, face-to-face training and delivery partners is key, but most important is applying the learning at work. Make it relevant and timely, and structure the development around live work issues.
  • Collaborative; Your development should provide structured networking opportunities. Participants’ line managers should be involved in the development activity, and use tools such as ongoing peer coaching as a powerful way to support and encourage collaborative learning.
  • Selective; You should be clear about who your development is targeted at. It could be high potentials, C-suite, or everyone — but whoever it is, you should definitely have a way of ensuring the participants are ready and willing to learn. Check they are entering into the activity in the right headspace and with a learning mindset.
  • Engaging; Don’t simply consider the development opportunity, but also how far you want to make the learning experience engaging and memorable. If you make your leaders feel valued and special as well as worthy of investment then this can bring powerful retention and engagement benefits. Make your activity prestigious and aspirational to maximise the impact, not just on the participants but the wider organisation.
  • Fluid; Your clients, environment and strategy regularly change. So should the focus of your leadership development. You should regularly review your leadership capabilities and development portfolio to ensure ongoing relevance. A business suddenly in crisis needs different leadership qualities compared to when it was stable and growing steadily.
  • Measurable; You need to know whether your activity makes any difference, and not just through participant “happy sheets”. Use hard and soft metrics to track the impact, and do so over an appropriate time period. This is easier said than done, but it’s very important, particularly if you want to justify the current — and future — investment.

So what’s your take-away? Think about which option is best for you.

There are two things you can take away from this article. The first is that leadership development is not actually that complicated. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors around, and the reality is that with not too much effort and a basic level of spend you can improve the effectiveness of your leaders.

And you’d be right — that’s where you’ll see two thirds of the impact. But think about whether you want your leaders — and by extension your organisation — to be the best they can be, whether you’re prepared to spend a little more time and, yes, most likely money. If that’s what’s right for you then you should consider the Rule of Thirds and the nine things you should do.

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