RWC2015

Leadership training providers need to lift their game – and so do leaders!

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“…what you see with your eyes is not necessarily real. My enemy is, among other things, the me inside me.” ~ Haruki Murakami

I originally wrote this blog as an article for Sonia McDonald, director of the Queensland-based LeadershipHQ. It was published in the July 2015 Edition of LHQ Magazine, (page five). Since then, I’ve added a few more thoughts….


Provision of leadership training: big. Demand for leadership training and development: huge. Is this similar to commercial provision of fast, junk food and our appetite for it? Are we corporately obese from consumption of mass-produced, easily available, well advertised and marketed, ‘trendy’, but ultimately unhealthy leadership food that lacks balance and real nutritional value?

When you last spent money developing leaders in your organisation, how did you measure return on investment? Did you just need rid of un-allocated training budget at financial year-end? Did the provider of the ‘training’ or ‘development’ actually pay attention and understand your organisation’s problem, or deliver a package tweaked to make it ‘fit’? Are you sure you understood the problem you were trying to fix?

Leadership research: similarly vast. The golden chalice – to be the next “Kotter”, “Drucker”, or “Schein”. I’m not being dismissive; these people have at some point, all been ground breaking and influenced two decades or so of organisational culture and leadership. Nonetheless, exercise caution, and think! Drucker’s focus on effectiveness (from 1967) holds true – paraphrased: if you can’t articulate how the shiny thing contributes, then it’s just a shiny thing…enjoy looking at it, and move on.

How do you decide the best way to invest in not only your own development, but also that of leaders upon whom you rely? How do you ensure money spent on a four-day residential workshop at a five-star resort is worth it? For a start, you have to lift your game. Invest most, when you think you need it least; train hard, fight easy!

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Not everyone is a leader. The David Brent parody (played by Ricky Gervais in ‘The Office’) springs to mind as the least damaging example. At worst an individual who isn’t a leader, but who occupies the role will get people un-necessarily killed, or take a good team and destroy it. The best people will leave, and the remainder turn into commuter-zombies.

I contemplate the start point for a leader as being able to provide people with reassurance, associated with your presence. For example, I create an environment where clients feel safe making themselves vulnerable, reinforced by three things: neither seeking, nor using testimonials; the prelude to any work of a non-disclosure agreement; and my manner and demeanour.

Reassurance can be visceral; a matter of survival, like in a firefight. It might be intellectual and psychological associated with your livelihood, maybe, when the Damoclesian threat of ‘restructure’ dangles over your department. When it doesn’t feel, sound, or look right – in uncertainty, and when you think it might go wrong – a leader’s the person you turn to, or think of, listen to, or look at with belief that they’ll make the right decisions to keep you (and those around you) safe.

Leadership’s foundation is the nature and quality of relationships. My horse-training and equine-facilitated learning programmes are based on the same principle. During and beyond my military career this remains fundamental. Statement of the obvious? Then why don’t we see it more widely? Why do people struggle with it?

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Seductive leadership and development training is cleverly constructed and marketed – it’s multi-million dollar business. Testimonials from well-known figures and CEOs of ‘successful’ companies, offer gravitas. If we see a high-profile figure quoted, or the coach of a successful national sports team saying, “this was the best day I’ve ever spent, and I learned so much about myself!” – it has to be good, because I want some of that gilt to rub off. I want bragging rights to declare, “yeah, we took the executive team down to the lakeside resort where the World Cup team had a retreat before the semi-final”.

Really? That’s still the best you’ve got…?

When it goes wrong, the consequences can be dire; take for example, the recent experience of the England Rugby Team.  The UKs Telegraph newspaper reports how eight members of staff, under the team’s head of athletic performance, took part in what is described as an activity that, “sounds like something from a corporate training manual“. The UKs Daily Mail is a little more brutal, with a headline, “Only Fools and Horses” . The Mirror newspaper expostulated that, “some of the coaching staff led horses round a field in a bizarre pre-tournament team-building exercise“. I don’t doubt that the company providing the training is a professional organisation and did a good job; the point here is that media spin and the appetite for blood  following the England RWC2015 performance has not only ridiculed the activity undertaken by the English Rugby team, but also means the company providing the training for them is probably coy about advertising that they provided the training. Imagine if the England rugby team fortune had gone the other way!

What does this mean for you?

It means you have to try harder. Is adoption of re-contextualised ‘lean-six’ fault finding tools from a production line process the right answer, because it’s popular and fashionable? Roll the clock forward two years; tell me what it’ll look like when you (or one of your senior executives) are leading the people on whom your company relies to win? What behaviours would you expect to see? What do you do if you don’t see those behaviours? More importantly, why aren’t you seeing those behaviours – I mean, you sent people on a workshop with a great set of testimonials!

Did your expensive leadership development forum conduct personality type profiling? Was that what attracted you? Some of these activities are superb, and I know a few companies doing this really well. There is benefit in understanding what makes you tick as an individual or team, but beware! ‘Off-the-shelf’ profiling that repackages the findings and gives ‘insightful debriefs in a one-on-one exchange’ runs the risk of giving the recipient justification and excuses for poor, or bad behaviours.

Encouraging individuals to, ‘empower their subordinate staff to make decisions, and ‘take a greater level of ownership’ is a double-edged sword. I’ve intervened more than once where this manifests as detachment and disengagement from staff and the outcomes of the organisation. One particular experience stands out: when success (through application, by a person in a leadership position, of ‘forum-enlightened empowerment’) didn’t follow, ‘empowered’ staff began to question the logic or direction given. Their leader then saw people as incompetent or insubordinate – because $30K of development training meant they had to be right. It’s uncharitable to lay blame at the conference suite door of the leadership development forum; a company with a formidable reputation ran it. There were also problems with interpretation, assimilation, and subsequent application of the knowledge garnered by the attending leader – but it illustrates the value in thinking carefully about what you’re trying to achieve by investing in training and development. How will you measure success? Can you afford training and development that addresses symptoms, rather than causes, and that might even compound your problems?

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What’re you going to do to make things better, and tackle the enemy inside you?

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