Shift your focus from traditional leadership training to on-the-job development to achieve better results

Rebecca Schalm: How to improve leadership development in the workplaceIf you ask a successful leader to recall their most impactful development experience, chances are it happened while engaged in real work.

This observation was reinforced for me during a project designed to help organizations transfer and retain the business-critical knowledge of retiring baby boomers.

Interviews with more than 40 successful, long-tenured leaders confirmed that the best development takes place on the job – on an assignment that stretches one’s personal resources, the opportunity to work side by side with a mentor, or struggling and succeeding with a challenging project.

However, while we have long known that most development happens in the workplace, we continue to rely on external, formal training to build leadership capability. There are five key reasons to shift away from traditional leadership training and development and focus instead on helping employees develop critical skills and capabilities while they work.

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  1. Traditional approaches to development don’t produce robust talent pipelines. Despite the time and energy we invest in identifying and developing future leaders, waning gaps in the talent pipeline persist in most organizations. For some reason, we have not been able to sufficiently prepare managers to fill the gaps created when key leaders move on. Our emphasis on external training and development as key strategies to prepare leaders has not been successful. In contrast, the evidence suggests the most powerful way people learn critical capabilities is by actively engaging in real work, most often alongside those with the knowledge, skills and wisdom they need to develop.
  2. Traditional approaches to development don’t result in better business performance. While organizations have invested heavily in training and development, we have not seen a commensurate uptick in overall business performance. One reason may be that external training is too generic. For example, a business school strategy course may provide you with exposure to different strategic planning models and tools, but it fails to hone your ability to think and operate strategically in your business, in your marketplace, with your teams, and confronting your particular challenges.
  3. Traditional approaches to development focus narrowly on the chosen few. Employee development is often tied to formal succession planning, which limits its scope. Because external development is expensive, organizations are forced to bet on a chosen few ‘high potentials.’ In reality, all employees are an appreciating asset and benefit from intentional development; their value is enhanced as they grow and mature. Rather than overinvest in a few possible successors, organizations need to build the knowledge and expertise of all their employees. The only way to realistically do this is by embedding learning into the organization and the day-to-day experiences of all.
  4. Traditional approaches to development are designed for learners of the past. As baby boomers transition out of the workplace and millennials and Gen Zers transition in, organizations will need to do learning differently. While boomers are comfortable with formal classroom and text-based learning, young employees expect learning to be hands-on, interactive, and just in time. Shunting people off to a campus for a weekend locked up with an instructor, a PowerPoint deck, and a stack of case studies is so last year.
  5. Traditional approaches to development fail to engage and leverage your most valuable asset – your internal experts. An organization’s best training resource isn’t a course list; it’s its cadre of seasoned leaders and experts. They are the people who have a nuanced understanding of the issues, the war stories to share as cautionary tales, and the insightful coaching to provide. When we fail to design learning that draws on their deep knowledge and expertise, it’s like installing plumbing and failing to turn on the tap. While on-the-job learning that engages internal experts and learners is more complex to design and deliver, it has a much higher chance of delivering results.

At some point, we are going to have to face the fact that outsourcing leadership development isn’t working and probably isn’t going to suddenly start working. At the same time, we know on-the-job learning is a far superior way to develop people.

Isn’t it time we put that knowledge into practice?

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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