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Solving the Leadership Development Dilemma

September 2, 2019 - 5 min read

Solving the Leadership Development Dilemma

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What does the leader of the future look like?

Current leadership development programs aren’t enough

by Dr. Damian Vaughn, Chief Programs Officer at BetterUp

Organizations today face a common challenge: they are struggling to develop leaders of tomorrow.

The pace of change in business is head-spinning. Advanced technologies continue to reshape business models, customer and employee expectations, and entire industries—creating a complex and uncertain workplace. Organizations need a new type of leader to meet these challenges and opportunities, one with skills and capabilities beyond those of the past.

But while L&D leaders recognize these new leadership needs, traditional learning and development efforts are failing. In fact, only 14% of CEOs say they have the talent they need to execute their business strategies.

To solve this leadership development dilemma, organizations must rethink their approach to development and ask themselves: what are the skills most important for the leaders of the future, and what will it take to develop them?

What does the leader of the future look like?

While the traditional principles of leadership will always be important, effective leaders of the future require more: the development of strong soft skills, such as problem solving, influencing, communication, and coaching. According to a study by Deloitte, 92 percent of executives rate soft skills as a critical priority for operating in today’s dynamic business environment.

Here’s an example of why: The demands on employees today can create a lot of emotional turbulence and tension in the workplace. This leads employees to become self protective, prioritizing their own self interests over the goals of the team or organization. Performance weakens, people leave, and culture erodes.

Leaders need strong emotional intelligence, such as empathy and interpersonal skills, to help build trust and engagement during challenging times. Being able to express empathetic concerns about difficulties helps people feel understood and shows transparency—which can restore commitment.

Other soft skills, such as situational awareness, risk tolerance, and having a growth mindset, help leaders navigate—and even thrive—with change. They are better able to tolerate ambiguity, have greater awareness of their environments, and flex when conditions fluctuate.

Managers at all levels today also need the ability to build highly effective teams, assess fit, and create alignment amidst shifting needs and priorities. Soft skills such as communication, influence, and problem solving are key to driving performance and preventing burnout—for themselves and their team members.

Current leadership development programs aren’t enough

While soft skills are paramount, they are a market scarcity. Adecco Staffing reports that 44 percent of executives said the lack of soft skills is the biggest proficiency gap in the U.S. workforce today.

This isn’t surprising. Most leadership development programs are not set up to provide the structure or support that enables real growth, especially in the area of soft skills.

Think about your own learning and development experiences. Most of us have attended a four hour seminar to develop a skill or participated in a professional development workshop. The main measure of success for those programs was based on whether you showed up and if you completed a form at the end of the workshop.

While these approaches may be efficient and cost effective—this isn’t the way we learn and grow. Episodic learning programs focused on transferring knowledge about a particular leadership skill, especially for soft skills, just don’t stick. In fact, studies show that most people forget 90 percent of what they learn in a single session within one month, and 60 percent within just one day. Even multi-phase leadership programs don’t provide the reinforcement required for real behavior change.

Leaders must be developed—not just trained. Soft skills in particular are complex. They take time to develop and require practice and reflection in the context of work. I think back on my NFL days. Great players did not improve and grow without a recipe of daily practice, guided experimentation, personalized feedback, and constant reinforcement.

Organizations need a new model for leadership development in the workplace—one that has the ingredients that enable meaningful growth, and can scale to support all managers, from executives to frontline supervisors.

In my next blog, I will discuss how organizations can rethink their approach to leadership development and define what is needed to successfully develop the leaders they need tomorrow, today. It’s time to give your people the opportunity to become the best leaders they can be.

Published September 2, 2019

Dr. Damian Vaughn, PhD

Chief Programs Officer

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