Defining Leadership Development

In a recent post like this, I worked through just a few answers to the question Why is leadership development important? In that process, I shared some statistics from a few different studies citing costs organizations encounter when they don’t put a priority on developing the people filling their leadership roles; costs that are rarely tracked and even more rarely understood or tied directly back to a failure in developing leaders… If you missed any of that, you’re welcome to circle back to a page I put together compiling it all…

Let’s take the next step through by clearly defining leadership development… Promoting someone into a leadership role doesn’t make them a leader anymore than selling them at McDonald’s would make them a hamburger! (I considered substituting milkshake for hamburger but I think it’s been years since a milkshake machine has worked at any McDonald’s worldwide…) And hearing a group of managers refer to themselves as the Leadership Team simply because of the titles they hold ranks right up there with nails on a chalkboard board.

I suppose it was around 20 years ago when I first read The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell’s book, where he says that “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less. A group of folks barking orders, dictating production schedules, and making decisions that serve themselves over the team members they’re responsible for earns very little influence. They may be able to control some of the behaviors of those team members, especially when they’re hovering over them with the proverbial whip, but that’s often one of the key drivers of that voluntary turnover we looked at that last post.

Think about this based on your own experience… Which boss had the most influence with you? Was it someone who expected you to be 15 minutes early while they were constantly showing up late? Was it the one who forced you to work every weekend while they rarely made it from 9 to 5 on Monday through Friday? Or was the boss who was always the first one there, the last to leave, and would jump in to help almost any time things got tough?

I’m guessing you’re visualizing the faces of a few of these right now… Maybe the first few questions all tie back to the same face? If so, I doubt that had a lot of authentic influence…

So where does real influence come from? In almost any situation, the kind of influence that helps someone lead their team effectively comes from intentionally serving each of the members of the team; making decisions based on how the entire team can succeed rather than what’s best for themselves and looking for any way they can possibly support those team members in accomplishing the task at hand.

As we move forward here, defining leadership development, we’ll look at some of the most critical things we can do to ensure we’re leading effectively and the leaders on our teams have the tools they need to earn the kind of influence that allows them to make a positive impact on the team members they’re responsible for!

It Won’t Just Magically Happen!

It’s fairly simple to begin defining leadership development by looking at the importance of truly serving our team members rather than barking commands. While that’s quite the noble concept, it’s far from natural for almost anyone moving into their first position with leadership responsibility. I’ve rarely seen someone promoted because of how effective they’ve proven to be in serving the people around them. Unfortunately, that kind of servant leadership prior to being in a position of authority is often overlooked completely or taken for granted. Have you ever heard anyone say “nice guys finish last”?

In almost every scenario I’ve seen where someone earned a promotion to a position where they now had responsibility for leading a team of people, it was based primarily on a strong ethic and excellent technical skills - both of which are extremely valuable in any field! But having those two important traits doesn’t necessarily translate into the skill set needed for achieving great results through a team… And simply occupying a certain office or getting new business cards with a fancy title isn’t very likely to morph anyone into a leader either!

As we’re defining leadership development, so we have a better understanding of it personally or for the people we want to grow into leadership roles, our first step is often in simply admitting that it won’t just magically happen… It actually requires a very strategic and intentional approach!

In the first chapter of The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, John Maxwell makes a statement that ties right back to this. He says, “working hard doesn’t guarantee success and hope isn’t a strategy.” While hard work is often what lands someone into a leadership role, that same kind of hard work is rarely what will make them successful in leading the team they’re now responsible for… Whether that’s where we’ve found ourselves or that’s something we’re seeing one of the rising stars on our team struggle with, we need to develop a course of action for filling in the gaps.

Depending on the person, the role, and the level of responsibility that comes with it, defining the type of leadership development needed can vary quite a bit. Keeping each of these in mind can make a significant difference in developing the right strategy to ensure the development process is effective.

One constant we can count on is that leadership always involves making decisions that impact a group of people rather than thinking about what’s best for ourselves. And that carries more weight in each new level of responsibility… Another constant will be the challenges that come as we’re required to have difficult conversations with different members of our team. Recognizing their communication style, and what fulfills them, can play a key role in whether a tough conversation goes smoothly or we need to pick up the pieces later on. And yet another constant lies in our approach to our own continuous improvement. Much like recognizing a team member’s communication style can help a conversation go more smoothly, having a firm understanding of how we’re wired personally can go a long way in ensuring any plan we develop is something we can actually sustain. (We dedicated an entire lesson on that in our Leading At The Next Level program called Growing With STYLE)

So what happens when someone doesn’t develop but continues to advance in their career? I’m guessing you’ve seen that happen too… The higher someone climbs in leadership responsibility without developing authentic leadership skills, the bigger the impact this has on the organization they’re a part of. And as more individuals are impacted negatively by this, you can count on that turnover number, as well as the associated costs, we looked at recently to continue creeping up!

Another challenge I’ve seen quite frequently in defining leadership development has been in knowing whether or not any type of plan we put in place is actually working. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some simple things we can do - for our own leadership development plan or with the plans we develop for the leaders around us - to make sure we’re seeing a tangible return on investment.

Soft Skills that Make a Hard Impact

When we’re intentional about accurately defining leadership development, we can begin to identify specific areas that need to be addressed in our growing team members. This is also where we should be establishing baseline measurements for a few key metrics that tie directly back to effective leadership - in the lack thereof…

Over the last twenty years, the most common push back I’ve seen to making an investment in providing the necessary training and development that can be so critical in helping new supervisors and managers lead their teams effectively has been the concern of not knowing if it makes any difference at all. In so many cases, those soft skills are viewed as intangible and providing tools for developing only makes it to the front burner when things are slow or there’s been some sort of crap storm and something just has to be done…

First off, I’ve never seen things get that slow. To that end, when things do get slow, those same organizations almost always eliminate all spending on everything that’s not absolutely critical to production. (I’ll circle back to how critical soft skills are to production shortly…) And with regards to cleaning up the crap storm, that’s kinda like going after a fire extinguisher after the building has burned to the ground.

I’d be hard pressed to name more than just a handful of the supervisors and managers that I’ve ever known who haven’t placed far more emphasis on developing their team members’ technical skills than they ever did on what they considered to be soft skills. I take no issue whatsoever with that when it comes to the folks who typically work alone. But even the ones who work as part of a team have to be able to work with one another effectively. The key in defining leadership development really lies in identifying the soft skills that make a hard impact!

As we looked at the question Why is leadership development important?, I shared some stats from different studies showing the true costs that can be directly attributed to kicking the soft skill training can down the road. Based on what those studies showed, a company with around 100 employees typically saw costs of nearly $1 million between just average turnover and average productivity losses. And those were tied right back to poor communication, a soft skill that’s nearly always considered intangible and hard to measure!

While I doubt those numbers will be exactly the same for your organization, I’m fairly certain the costs are significantly higher than you think they are since so few companies ever track any of the indirect costs that are tougher to nail down… And you may actually have issues other than turnover and lost productivity that drive the costs even higher. Regardless of where those numbers currently are, the first step in defining leadership development so that it provides a measurable return on investment is taking inventory of where you are right now; what’s your annual turnover rate? What’s your current productivity percentage? Depending on the industry, productivity may be a measure of indirect vs direct labor, billable hours vs non-billable hours, or a look at revenue vs expenses. However you measure it, figure out where you are right now so you have something to compare as you begin working to make that hard impact.

More often than not, the gaps you discover in defining what leadership development is needed don’t require a fancy approach. Practical and applicable are always good! But we have to do one very critical thing to make sure any of the development we provide ever matters!

Accountable for Results

Once we’ve been intentional about defining leadership development, our work should be done! Right?

Before you fall completely out of your chair, laughing at that ridiculous statement, I’ll challenge you to show anything of significance that’s truly that simple… If we want to achieve significant results, especially the tangible results that make a measurable impact on our organization’s bottom line, we’ll have to be sure to see it through - not just issue a statement and call it done…

For close to 15 years, I worked for a Human Resource Manager who was always very vocal about what he expected from me anytime I attended any type of class or conference. I was required to report back to him, and often the entire management team, showing I had learned and what steps I would be implementing in the process I led. I was also responsible for seeing this through and for showing a tangible return on the investment that had been made for me to attend the training in question.

This same manager was also very vocal in his belief that the safety and human resource functions of the organization were not revenue centers; those functions were typically in place for cost avoidance - like minimizing turnover, reducing the cost of injuries, etc. That said, he had an expectation for any action plan we implemented to make a direct impact on productivity and profitability for the entire business we supported. The plans we initiated were expected to help improve the processes that our customers were paying for, not simply add burdensome procedures that may help prevent an issue somewhere down the road while requiring significantly more effort and expense every single day. (We’ll leave those things to the government…)

Meeting his expectations was often an incredibly tall order! It really forced me to think about how any action step I suggested would not only reduce the potential exposure we may be facing but also how that same action could assist in streamlining a process and make a measurable impact on profitability. While becoming effective at doing this took years, his expectation has served me well in every role I’ve held since!

After we’ve worked through the process of defining leadership development, then providing our team members with the tools they truly need to lead their teams effectively, it’s absolutely critical that we hold them accountable for applying what they’ve learned! This isn’t some touchy-feely idea that we’ll never really be able to see results from, this needs to be something that’s tracked and measured. Just like with any given technical training, we should be able to see different behaviors being exhibited immediately based on the new skills they’ve learned… Also like applying a new technical skill, our team members should have complete clarity as to how their new approach will yield different (and better) results. Without clearly knowing what they’re trying to achieve, they aren’t likely to know if the action they’ve taken has mattered…

In any organization, capital expenditures are expected to have a payoff/payback within a certain amount of time. An investment into developing the leadership skills of our team members should be no different, but we need to hold them accountable for identifying how they can apply what they’re learning, what changes they expect to see from the action steps they take, and to show tangible results. Whether it’s in person, virtual, or with our digital courses, Cindy and I have built this approach into every single lesson we provide through our Emerging Leader Development and Recruitment, Retention, & Culture courses and our entire Leading At The Next Level program. If you’d like to get taste of that approach at no cost whatsoever AND earn continuing education credits through the Society for Human Resource Management, the Human Resource Certification Institute, or the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards, we’d suggest you register for the next complimentary webinar we’ll be offering on Navigating Leadership Roadblocks so you can get some solid tips then experience our action-based assessment process.

Please understand though, even with this kind of expectation in place, it’s still going to require very intentional effort. As we move forward, we’ll take a look at a few of the reasons why leadership training fails.

Learn These Critical Steps for an Effective Leadership Transition

With each step forward in our leadership journey, there’s potential to be stopped in tracks as we run into various roadblocks to leading our teams effectively. As we gain more and more leadership responsibility, we tend to rely less on our technical skills, our ability to supervise a process, or our training on how to manage specific metrics. This is where developing and strengthening specific leadership skills can make a tremendous impact on the results of our team as well as the entire organization.

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