Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Business of Leadership Development is Not Easy

There are many books, courses, blogs, and podcasts out there that can help you become a better leader. So why aren't we a world of master leaders?  Simply, because the business of leadership development is not easy.  

When I took a developmental rotation from my position as an attorney to my position in as a leadership development professional I had many people tell me that I had sabotaged my career.  To this day, I am constantly asked if I am having fun or when I am going to go back to my "real" job.  In other words someone with a law degree is only at their highest and best use if they are doing legal analysis.  

I would like to point out two things...

First, the work I do on a daily basis as a leadership development professional is harder than any legal analysis I have ever done.  Legal analysis goes something like this.  You have a rule, you have a set of facts, you apply the rule to the set of facts and determine whether the facts are within the rule or not.  An acceptable answer is "It could go either way" because humans write laws and humans are constantly searching for and finding the loopholes.  (See Will Your Leadership Put Your Organization on the Front Page of the Washington Post for more of my thoughts on this perpetual cycle.)  In my position, if there was a hole in the law I would get to try to figure out how to close the loophole and then do it all over again when someone found a hole in that.  The cycle is a challenge for a few years and then it gets repetitive and frustrating.  Leadership development, on the other hand, is a constant challenge to find what drives people, what will help people develop, where the organization is and needs to go, etc.  Because the people I am working with always change, the process always changes.  The challenge is constant and increasing in this economy.

Second, in a recent Pew Survey, only 18% of those surveyed agreed that lawyers contribute "a lot" to society's well being.  Ouch.  The military, teachers, medical doctors, scientists, and engineers led the list.  When I look back on my role as a lawyer, I cannot honestly say that I contributed "a lot" to society's well being.  Yes, I filled a basic reactive need to keep the bureaucratic and legal system running.  But mostly, I enable a lot of lawyers to bill their clients extreme amounts of money (often more than they would have paid in taxes) to avoid paying taxes.  As a leadership development professional, I have unlimited bounds to contribute "a lot" to society's well being.  Much of the work I do helps the people I work with (and myself!) become not just a better leader but a better person.  Emotional intelligence and all those "soft skills" are not manipulative tools to get people to do what you want them to - they are ways of treating other people with the dignity and respect they deserve - in the workplace and outside of it.

So why is the business of leadership development so hard?  Here are just a few of the challenges I see in the field.

1.  Leaders are not self-aware.  Emerging leaders are often those most interested in leadership development (and usually have the least access to it).  They are eager to learn new things, relatively untainted by the existing culture, and cognizant of the fact that there are things they can learn.  Senior leaders and executives often approach leadership training as something they need to investigate for their employees.  Some of the people I respect the most as leaders are the first ones to tell me what they learned from a program that they didn't know.  Leadership development is a lifetime process.  Anyone who thinks they are "finished" probably needs the training most of all.

2.  The constant focus on training return-on-investment does not factor in the investment made by the participant to apply the concepts.  Leadership development professionals are often asked to show their return on investment.  This is difficult because for every hour in class a participant needs to spend 7-10 hours actively applying the concepts, reflecting on the results, and adjusting their course.  Quite frankly, very few people do this.  Even more frankly, if the participant is not willing to invest this time, it is probably not worth it to send them to any training.  Leadership development professionals do not have a magic wand to make people better leaders after they sit in a room answering e-mails on their blackberry for a few hours.  All leadership development professionals teach processes that must be applied to create change.

3.  Leaders really want people who will do what they say and not question their decisions or methods.  I recently spoke with a person who asked their executive about the "optics" of a decision the executive was pushing and the executive told the person that was the executive's job to worry about not the employees.  I put this behavior in the category of career derailer for any leader and serious worry for an executive.  Not only does this behavior instantly decrease employee engagement but "optics" and "ethics" particularly should be every person's concern.  That is how organizations stay out of trouble.  If you do not reward critical questioning from your employees, or worse, actively stifle it like this executive did, you are certainly headed for trouble.  While listening and developing others are constantly taught, if a leader does not truly value the skills, his or her actions will defeat any training provided.

4.  Leaders think leadership training is what "their people" need.  In addition to the self-awareness piece mentioned above, there is a modeling problem here.  If you are not attending training along side your "people" you are exhibiting that it is important only for lesser leaders.  No one wants to be viewed as a lesser leader so they fear the implication of being seen at leadership training.  There is also a common culture developed when an entire organization or team hears the same training.  They develop language to talk about conflicts and decisions that focuses on the process and ideas not the people.  If the executive is not aware, they can defeat all the work a team is trying to do by violating the common culture even if it is unintentional.

5.  Training funding gets cut first from budgets.  This is a fact.  It is often tied to the return on investment question, but there is also that "it is fun" or "soft stuff" stigma attached.  Organizations struggling financially or ethically should hunker down and increase leadership training, because true leaders and a sustainable pool of leadership talent are the only things that can turn the organization around.

6.  Technical experts think their expertise makes them experts in leadership.  I have an expertise in a type of tax law.  But if you ask me about criminal law, most of my knowledge will come from Law and Order reruns.  In past jobs I have worked with brilliant scientists whose worked changed the world as we know it and yet they needed my help to put together a budget.  Technical expertise in one area does not make you an expert in other areas.  For most areas we commonly accept this as a given.  For some reason, we feel that being a technical expert will make a person a good leader of other technical experts and expect them to just pick it up.  We need to recognize leadership as a discipline and skill and give people training in it before we throw them to the wolves.  (And those technical experts who have competed with co-workers for a leadership position and then had to work with the non-selected applicants afterwards know that "wolves" is not an exaggeration.)

7.  Lack of respect for the discipline.  All of these things have led to a true lack of respect for the discipline even though the number of books on the topic should be a clear indicator of the sincere need for it.  As should every scandal in the news that is traced back to poor leadership.   

So the next time you meet a leadership development professional, ask them questions.  Ask them lots and lots of questions (we love those).  Because in asking questions you are opening yourself up to learning.  It is a first step, granted, but you can't take the second step until you take the first.