Research Report Summary – Revamping Leadership Development

Build your bench strength by modernizing the leadership paradigm

Organizations with poor leaders sometimes survive for a time, but they seldom thrive. Poor leadership can be attributed to many causes, such as lousy talent acquisition processes, dysfunctional corporate cultures or inferior leadership development programs.

Our new study focused on the leadership development part of the equation. in partnership with Skillsoft conducted a study with three primary goals in mind:

  • To gauge the state of leadership and leadership development programs in today’s organizations
  • To learn what stands in the way of improved leadership
  • To gather evidence on the best ways of improving leadership development

How Good Is Leadership?

Only 20% of respondents give a high rating to their organizations’ leadership skills (that is, at least 8 on a scale of 1 to 10). However, 57% of respondents rate their organizations’ overall leadership skills at 6 or lower on the 10-point scale.

On asking HR professionals to look at leadership through the perspective of employees, the results were similar. The good news begins with the 20% of HR professionals who predicted that their employees would agree or strongly agree that their leaders are effective. These findings indicate that, while it is rare, it is indeed possible to have great leadership skills in organizations.

Survey Statement

Leadership skill levels are not changing quickly in most organizations. About 90% of respondents saw little or no change in their organizations over the last two years. This suggests that few organizations are able to improve leadership skills dramatically over a short period of time. Most companies will likely have better success if they commit to a sustainable, long-term and well-thought-out plan of leadership improvement.

What Is the State of Leadership Development?

One of the main mechanisms for improving leadership skills is providing leadership development programs. Yet only about a third of HR professionals indicate that their leadership programs are excellent.

Leadership development programs directed at executives are more likely to be rated “excellent” (37%) than programs aimed at other groups, perhaps because those executive programs tend to receive the most funding.

There are many potential barriers to leadership development, but the most widely cited barrier is lack of time. This perceived lack of time and competing demands may influence which type of leadership development programs should be deployed. Brief but frequent learning opportunities might fit many managers’ schedules better than occasional long programs.

The second most widely cited barrier, a lack of interest among leaders in creating leadership development programs, is more worrisome. This is a different kind of problem, and it requires HR professionals to engage in a kind of change management process that will, over time, create leadership interest.

There are many different types of leadership skills, and few HR professionals think their leaders excel at any one of them. Over a third of respondents believe their colleagues view top management as trustworthy. Only 29%, however, indicate that their organizations’ leaders are good at listening, and a meager 17% claim their leaders are good coaches.

Leadership Development and Business Needs

Only 30% of HR professionals say that their organizations align leadership development with business needs. Clearly, alignment is something that HR must demonstrate if it seeks strong support for their leadership development program.

These weaknesses indicate that most organizations are developing leaders in an ad hoc, rather than strategic, manner. The study’s results also imply that training is siloed and poorly connected to crucial business plans.

Survey Statement

The previous chart shows what organizations are doing—and failing to do—in the area of leadership development. But what should they be doing?

First, respondents believe that leadership development needs to be more frequent rather than sporadic. Second, respondents say leadership development should be more inclusive rather than restricted to a few. Another reason to make leadership training more inclusive is to ensure that employees have solid leadership skills by the time they are promoted to the next level.

Where Are We Going in the Future?

As per the current demographic trends, it’s understandable that there is near unanimity among HR professionals (96%) that it’s important to transfer leadership skills to younger generations. What’s more surprising, however, is that over 90% of respondents also believe in the importance of egalitarian, changing, and informal leadership training. In this evolving paradigm, it no longer makes sense to limit leadership development to a select few. Instead, HR professionals believe it’s crucial for many people across the organization to have the skills to act as leaders when the situation calls for it.

One might have expected that leadership skills related to digital technologies or virtual teams were growing in importance. That’s not what most HR leaders think, however. Less than half agree that those two skill sets are growing in importance. Instead, over three-quarters of HR professionals point to change leadership as an area they are increasingly focusing on as an area on which they are increasingly focusing on.

Change management, of course, is related to “leadership that results in innovation,” the second most widely selected response. In both cases, leaders must inspire more than direct.

The most common modality of training is still traditional instructor-led training (56% of organizations). Such training seems inadequate to today’s needs, but it’s even more disturbing that 51% of respondents say their organizations rely on coaching as a major means of development. Coaching can certainly be a powerful means of leadership development, but only 17% of survey respondents said their leaders were good at coaching.

The solution is to invest in development programs that turn average leaders into capable coaches. Not every single manager has the innate ability to be an excellent coach, but most can make great strides with the right training and ongoing support.

The third most common method of leadership development is eLearning, though it’s used in less than half of organizations. If organizations can master the art of developing better leadership skills via eLearning, they can make leadership development both more continuous and more widely distributed.

Are We Seeing a Change in How We Define Leadership?

One approach to leadership focuses almost exclusively on the top team, whereas another emphasizes “leadership at all levels” or the “democratization of leadership.” The latter approach suggests a more distributed and fluid form of leadership.

There are three distinct camps when it comes to moving towards the more democratized model of leadership. The largest camp (39%) expects low or very low movement in this direction. Almost as many (37%) expect a moderate move in this direction, while the remaining 23% believe there will be high or very high movement.(1)

What Makes a Difference?

To gain insight into what makes a difference in leadership development, the respondents were divided into two cohorts: Well-led organizations(2) and poorly-led organizations(3). The following findings are based on comparing these two cohorts.

  • Well-led organizations tend to report much better financial performance and are much more likely to say leadership is improving.
  • Poorly-led organizations are generally not getting any better. If those organizations want to improve leadership skills, then something must change.
  • Well-led organizations shape their leadership development programs differently and tend to be more balanced in their investments in development across all leadership levels
  • The biggest difference between the two cohorts in learning modalities is that well-led organizations are about twice as likely to use coaching and mentoring as poorly-led organizations.

This study shows that organizations vary in terms of how leadership development programs are used in their organizations. To learn more and to take home key tactical and strategic takeaways, we invite you to download and read the complete research report here:

1. As often occurs in this kind of analysis, numbers do not add to 100% due to rounding.
2. Well-led organizations: The organizations of respondents who agree or strongly agree that employees view their leaders as effective.
3. Poorly-led organizations: The organizations of respondents who somewhat disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement that employees view their leaders as effective.

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