How-To: Make Your Leadership Development Relevant, Viral

Expose your leaders to new ideas and new models, then let them draw their own conclusions.

By Brian Fishel, Chair, Best Practice Institute’s Senior Executive Board,and Louis Carter, Founder and CEO, Best Practice Institute

Developing your leaders to successfully negotiate the daily challenges of doing business has never been more critical and necessary—or more difficult. Here are a few keys to enabling your leaders to embrace new solutions and propagate them throughout the workplace.

  1. Have an executive sponsor: All leadership development efforts are doomed from the start if it appears to be emerging solely from HR. At minimum, their impact will be limited. It is essential to have an internal sponsor with clout—ideally the CEO—behind your programs. If not the CEO, then it should be one or more of the CEO’s direct reports. Once you have secured a sponsor, keep him or her fully engaged. Obtain the sponsor’s input and support for the design, development, and delivery of your program. Communicate with him or her often about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Be sure to share the outputs and impact measures for your programs with the sponsor as it helps them advocate for your program company-wide.
  2. Focus on the now: What are the top issues, challenges, and problems your company is facing right now? That’s where your leadership development efforts must focus. Your world likely is changing too fast to focus on three or five years from now. Keep the training relevant. To identify the most pressing current issues, involve your sponsor and other top leaders in the process. However, don’t rely just on senior leaders—dip down a level to interact with and engage those closer to the action day-to-day.
  3. Promote cross-functional dialogue: After you identify a key issue, bring together a group of senior leaders and employees who are wrestling with that issue to spend a full day in dialogue and debate. Help them to inform, educate, and teach each other. One key to making this work is to hand pick the group of 10 to 30 executives who participate in such a session. Are the participants thought leaders? Are they wrestling right now with the issue at hand? Do they have something to contribute to the other participants? Involve your CEO and sponsor in the participation selection process.
  4. Describe, don’t prescribe: In all your development efforts, expose your leaders to new ideas, new models, new resources—then let them draw their own conclusions. Describe principles and practices, but don’t prescribe answers. Let them work through for themselves how they will apply what they are learning to their department or business unit. One benefit of this approach: Your leaders accept ownership and accountability. Leave the conclusions to them, and then hold them accountable.
  5. Make the learning viral: If your work environment is changing rapidly, you don’t have the luxury of gradually effecting the changes necessary to keep up. To accomplish rapid change, learning must become viral. Plant the right seeds with your key thought leaders and let them spread their thinking across the company, laterally, as well as up and down the chain. Viral learning occurs only when your leaders genuinely embrace what they have learned, which is why it is essential to ensure you are focused on the most current and relevant issues and why it is so important to avoid prescription and encourage genuine adoption.
  6. Hold them accountable: Ask your leaders to identify what they are learning, how they are going to put their learning into practice, and what their specific implementation goals and time frames are. Discuss these conclusions with them, providing your feedback and consultation along the way. Then follow up to hold them accountable to achieve the standards they have set for themselves.

These ideas are easier to say than to do. Leadership development is as much art as it is science. However, your leadership development goals will become much easier to achieve if you keep it relevant and practical, keep it viral, and keep it real.

Brian Fishel, chair of Best Practice Institute’s Senior Executive Board, has a wealth of experience in leadership and organization development and talent management, having worked with some of the world’s top corporations, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Bank of America.

Louis Carter, founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute and author of several books, including “Best Practices in Leadership Development,” is an expert on learning, talent, leadership development, and change.

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