What two critical elements are necessary? If you are an organizational leader, you probably think your senior leaders need to be able to work as a team, communicate effectively, and think critically. You probably think, with respect to your own personal development, you just need more support and time from your organization.
While these elements are all important, there are two critical elements, that if not present, will prevent effective leadership development. (In other words, the return on investment for the individual and organization are negligible.)
Leadership development is about learning a leadership tool and then engaging in a circular process of testing it, reflecting on the results, refining your technique, and repeating until that tool has become second nature in both determination of appropriate use and execution. Then you learn another tool and start all over again. Every class you take, every book you read, every mentor you speak with all lead to adding more tools to your toolbox.
If you do not have self-awareness or do not make developing it your top priority, all the programs in the world can't teach you how to be a good leader.
Self-awareness begins with knowing how you learn best, when is your best time of day to try something outside of your comfort zone, how you should practice it, who will tell you the truth, and really appreciating those who do. It includes knowing that every person has baggage and blind spots and development is constantly trying to uncover these and compensate for them. It is about taking ownership of your actions and responsibility for effective communication.
Leadership development is essentially, learning a new tool and incorporating it into your routine so that it becomes habit. You can learn about tools via countless methods, individuals, books, and classes. The decision of how you will learn about new tools should depend largely on how you learn best. If you learn best at reading, you may never need to attend a class. Seriously. If you learn best by talking about concepts with other people, look for a peer cohort group, a mentor and/or a coach. If you learn best by hearing, use audiobooks and classwork. If you learn best by doing, focus on developmental assignments. Yes there will be times that you need to learn a tool in a prescribed fashion, just recognize that it is not your optimum method and work harder accordingly (for example, if you learn best by talking things out and you are asked to read a book, find a co-worker to read with you and make an informal book club out of it).
So now you now how you learn best and how to get the most out of instructional methods that are not your preferred method. Just a warning, that was the easy part. Where most leadership development attempts fail is in converting the newly learned topic from an understood concept to an executable tool. (Note: This is particularly difficult if you attend a multi-day program that packs in multiple concepts during the time. If that is the case, make notes about all the concepts as soon after the program as possible and then pick one topic at a time to work on using the process below. Once you have mastered a topic, move on to the next.)
TOOL MASTERY METHOD
Here is the process I recommend for getting the most out of any leadership development conversation, article, book, or class you use. I recommend keeping a developmental journal during your learning process. I constantly update a page of Journal Prompts to help you in the process. The format, paper or electronic, is a matter of personal preference, access, and security. The journal should be only for you and so it should be a safe place where you can truly reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, feedback, and goals for improvement.
1. Learn the elements, the framework, and the appropriate scope of the tool.
For example, if you are attending a class on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), make sure you understand the dichotomies, your preferences, what a preference is, your decision-making default, how your preferences may help you be a better leader, and how you can learn skills from your non-preferred side to be a better leader.
2. Make notes about your thoughts, questions, assumptions, peaked interests, a few things you want to try, and other areas you may want to explore next.
Do this as soon after the program as possible while it is still fresh in your mind. Your Developmental Journal is a great place to take program/book notes and collect your thoughts before you move on.
If you read the book Strengths 2.0 you may write down something like wanting to find out ways to use your strengths more in your current job and wanting to explore other areas where your strengths may be utilized. After that you might want to explore ways to improve your strengths, read Strengths Based Leadership, or find out your team members' strengths.
3. Pick one thing to start with and make a plan for how you will incorporate it into your repertoire.
If you attended a team building session incorporating the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation - Behavior Indicator (FIRO-B) and found out that, among other things, your entire team has a high Wanted Inclusion while you have a very low Expressed Inclusion, you may want to practice modifying your behavior to be more inclusive. Some ways you might do this are weekly staff meetings where each team gives an update of their portfolio, creating task forces for projects that cross team boundaries with liaisons from each team to disseminate information and represent concerns, and try to invite team members to coffee or lunch periodically.
4. Practice your plan, solicit feedback, reflect on the results, make changes, and repeat.
This is where self-awareness is key. You need to find a way to get sincere feedback on your practice. It may be as simple as watching the looks on people's faces, but you need that feedback and you need to take it seriously. I recommend telling people what you are working on up front and why. This takes away a lot of the speculation of ulterior motive that often accompanies sudden change.
With the FIRO-B example, tell your team that you realized that your behavior was not fitting their needs and you want to try to better so these are the things you are going to try. You may notice at the weekly staff meetings people seem disengaged and more frustrated than usual. Without this process, you may think that you did what they asked and they complained about that so nothing will ever make them happy. By soliciting feedback, you may find that the team doesn't really need updates from the other teams, but they want to know what your goals are and what initiatives you have on the horizon (and ditto with the larger organization) so they can align their goals and initiatives. So you adjust to monthly or quarterly town halls where this kind of information is communicated. You notice that the team members seem more engaged and are proactively putting forth cost-saving ideas for launching a new campaign. When you solicit feedback you find out that a team member had proposed something to a manager that the manager would have never elevated unless he new about the new campaign and saw how they could work together.
Just a note, this is a two-try success for demonstration purposes only. Expect the reflect and repeat process to go on many more times. Three to six months is a good estimate of how long you should work on incorporating a new tool. Unlike the simple example presented, what works for one team member will not work for another, and you will likely have to use the tool in multiple ways with different individuals.
5. Reflect on your success
Once you have incorporated a tool into your repertoire, take some time to close the process. Look back over the material and your journal entries from the learning process. Reflect on what was easy, what was hard, what surprised you, how others reacted to your attempts at change, and any noticeable results from the change. A 10% increase in revenue is obviously something to note, but so is the fact that the team members seem to communicate earlier on projects.
6. Choose your next battle...I mean tool...and start all over again
You can either delve more deeply into the tool you started with or learn a new tool that aligns with your long-term goals.
I have seen many people go through an excellent program and make absolutely no changes in their behavior because they either think that they are already good at it (bad assumption, if you are taking the time to learn something new, you can improve on what you already know; also, if someone asked you to attend the class it is a pretty clear indication you aren't as good at it as you think you are) or because they get lost in the day-to-day "busy"ness and never incorporate the concepts into their routine. Either way, the time and money spent on that training was wasted if you don't end up doing something with it.
To really master "that leadership development thing" you need to approach every learning opportunity by being deeply reflective and truly honest with yourself. Work on at least one thing from every program you attend and be able to succinctly describe how the program helped you improve your skills.
What has been the most productive learning experience for you?