I read this article as a follow-up to the previous article released by McKinsey that discusses several reasons why leadership developmen programs fail–not setting clear goals for the programs, not making programs relevant to real work, not addressing participants’ mindsets, and not evaluating the outcomes of the programs. The reasons probed in the McKinsey article concern the responsibilities of leadership development coaches, program designers, evaluators. But the HBR article throws in more variables to the equation. It identifies six reasons why leadership development programs fail–“the silent killers”–which include:
1) unclear direction
2) senior executives who are committed to changes
3) top-down management style that inhibits candid discussions
4) poor organizational design
5) poor talent management
6) employees’ fear of expressing honest opinions
Factor number two, three, and four have to be taken into the equation. They determine what the authors of the HBR article call “the soil” on which the seeds of organizational change can grow. As much individual aspirations for change may matter in organizational development, the authors say, they have to be supported by supportive environment and systematic process to persist. In fact, employees who have participated in a leadership training program might even turn out cynical if they return to work and find that changes are far out of sight due to organizational and managerial blocks to innovation. It’s scary.
But there’s more to the story. The authors note that preparing the soil cannot happen overnight. Citing an example of ASDA, they mention a step-by-step organizational change carefully designed for smooth and effective transition. Archie Norman, the CEO, first tested out the effectiveness of a new business model by starting with a few stores. When they proved to work out well, the company came up with a “driving test” that assessed whether a store was ready for implementing the new model. Depending on the outcome, a store either received financial support for renovation or consulting for getting ready for another test. When a store failed on the second chance, its manager would be let go.
This model is fascinating. It shows how thoughtful the leadership at ASDA was about the changes it was making. The company set the realistic goal of changing a unit at a time, designed strategies to implement the changes, provided an assessment, and responded to the assessment results with measures productive to organizational development. It mobilized itself to make an actual difference.
I guess the core question that companies should ask before jumping onto a leadership training program should be this: do we really want to change? A lot of the cases mentioned in both articles about the failure of leadership programs do not really point to the ignorance or naivete of the clients but to their hesitation to commit to a change they have paid for, how much consideration they are willing to put into practice, and how long they are willing to bear inconvenience–in short, how badly they want it.