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Tough Times Bring Mixed Messages in Leadership Development (Workforce Management)

Workforce-ManagementBack on February 9, 2009, we posted Despite Cutbacks, Firms Invest in Developing Leaders (Wall Street Journal) which offered some positive news for leadership development practitioners in this otherwise gloomy economy. However, the February 2009 issue of Workforce Management Online presents a more confused picture about the current state of leadership development.

James Emery, Sim Sitkin and Sanyin Siang, three leadership development researchers/educators at Duke University’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics collectively wrote an Workforce Management article titled In Challenging Times, Leadership Skills and Leader Development Matter which summarizes the results of their Duke Executive Leadership Survey. The article presents very interesting data for internal and external leadership development professionals as well as some conflicting messages about corporate training commitments and effectiveness.

In the fall of 2008, the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics conducted survey of 205 executives about a variety of leadership issues including which leadership skills executives believe are most important. Those skills include:

  • Promoting an ethical environment
  • Acting with authenticity
  • Accurately interpreting the competitive environment
  • Developing trust

Collectively, these skills are associated with a leader’s credibility.

The survey found that those skills associated with inspirational and ethical leadership were most strongly associated with organizational performance. Inspirational leadership skills included such behaviors as engaging employees in the company’s vision and inspiring employees to raise their goals, while ethical leadership skills included such behaviors as promoting an environment in which employees have a sense of responsibility for the whole organization, its mission and constituencies.

Duke-Fuqua School of Business Not too surprisingly, the report goes on to state that:

(R)esearchers at the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics have found that followers who see their leaders as more competent and trustworthy also evaluate those leaders as being more inspirational. In essence, leaders who are seen as more competent and more trustworthy are perceived as offering a more compelling and more valid inspirational impetus for followers. The research has also established that there is a connection between inspirational leader behaviors and follower performance. Inspired by their leaders, followers pursue more challenging goals, which in turn leads to greater organizational success.

Researchers from the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics also have found that leaders who display ethical leadership behaviors—that is, those who place the long-term interests of a group ahead of their personal goals—are more likely to ensure the long-term survival and success of the organization. Displaying such stewardship involves considering the trade-offs between short- and long-term objectives.

The survey looked at leadership development activity against measured outcomes. Regarding activities,

Performance evaluation discussions were the most commonly identified developmental activity used for senior managers, followed by training programs that were internally developed and delivered and then training programs that were externally developed and delivered. The least frequently used activities included executive coaching provided by individuals outside the organization and formal internal mentoring programs.

This is a little surprising considering the increased popularity and reported effectiveness of executive coaching as well as the relatively low expense and attendant benefits of developing and administering internal mentorship programs.

Not good news for external providers is that “senior manager participation rates were significantly lower for externally developed and delivered training programs relative to other resource-intensive activities.”

Specifically, only 30 percent of organizations using external training programs reported having more than half their senior managers participate in those programs over the past fiscal year. By comparison, 52 percent of organizations using internal training programs reported having more than half their managers participate over the past fiscal year.

But there’s hope.

The researchers analyzed the relationship between organizational performance and the use of various leadership development activities and ironically “found that the only activity that was positively related to improvements in revenues and profits was the use of externally developed and delivered training programs.”

The authors go on with some hypotheses about the disconnect between leadership development activities and perceived effectiveness which you should read in the article.

The article concludes:

In difficult times, organizations should not ignore the positive effect that a leader’s behaviors can have on organizational performance. In these situations, people turn to their leaders to inspire them to reach for higher goals, and aspiring to higher goals, in turn, improves organizational performance. Employees also look toward leaders to model ethical behaviors that promote the long-term welfare of the organization. While these leader behaviors appear to be critical influences on organizational performance, our research also found that firms seem to be inadequately emphasizing programs that could enhance this positive leader effect. Thus, focusing leadership development activities on behaviors that promote higher aspirations among employees and that emphasize accepting responsibility for the whole organization, its mission and constituencies are specific actions that organizations can take with regard to leader development that can improve performance in these trying times.

Great companies look at leadership development as a long-term investment while, unfortunately, too many organizations consider it a near-term expense.  As with much in leadership development, it’s simple in theory but much more difficult in execution.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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Posted in Business, General Leadership.

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