Leadership Development Needs Sponsorship at Top

There has certainly been no dearth of studies and stories, both here at HRE and beyond, on the challenges and failings of leadership-82821233 -- business leaderdevelopment programs. Here, for instance, is our last look at this problem that Staff Writer Mark McGraw wrote about on Nov. 30.

In that piece, sources told McGraw a major stumbling block keeping most leadership-development initiatives from succeeding is the tendency for line leaders to hand the LD reins over to human resources without taking responsibility for the huge role they, themselves, play in steering those initiatives.

As Debbie Lovich, head of the Boston Consulting Group’s  Leadership and Talent Enablement Center in Boston, says in that story:

“As soon as [those reins are handed over, talent issues are] disconnected from the business. You see it happen when line leaders are developing plans for their businesses, and ownership for anything to do with talent goes to HR. … [T]he best-in-class companies don’t just throw it over the fence to HR.”

Now, the latest global study on this issue by Los Angeles-based Korn Ferry suggests the inherent problems with leadership development have less to do with who’s taking responsibility and more to do with who’s sponsoring the effort.

The study, Real World Leadership, which polled more than 7,500 executives from 107 countries, found a “lack of executive sponsorship” to be the chief barrier. Survey respondents not only indicated there was a general lack of active sponsorship, buy-in and support from the top, but they expressed disappointment in the programs altogether, with 55 percent of respondents ranking their return on such efforts as only “fair” to “very poor.”

“Executives have identified the crux of the problem,” says Noah Rabinowitz, a Korn Ferry senior partner and global head of leadership development. “The next step is to identify practical steps to create a solution.

“Given the central role leadership plays in the success of any organization,” he adds, “the view of leadership development has to shift from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have’ business process, as integral as the supply chain, marketing or IT.”

Dési Kimmins, Korn Ferry’s principal consultant, had some very specific and practical advice for HR leaders seeking executive buy-in for leadership development:

“The first step … is to start with strategic business needs. Executives must examine what challenges the organization currently faces, where the business is going and the leadership profile that will help the company get where it needs to go. This process starts with the C-suite, and must sustain that level of endorsement and sponsorship to be successful. The most senior leaders need to engage in the development strategy and insist the impact is regularly measured and reported.

“People assume that development happens naturally, but that’s not necessarily the case. A CEO, for example, not only has to run a business but also [has to] deal with a large number of external stakeholders, such as shareholders, the board of directors, business partners and even the media …  . That’s why stepping into the CEO role is sometimes described as a career change, not just another step on the career ladder. Development and feedback even at this level are essential when so much is at stake.”

Even more specifically, the report lists tips for increasing the effectiveness of leadership development and creating a robust and sustainable leadership pipeline:

  • Embed leadership development in the culture and strategy, ensuring it is consistently sponsored by top executives.

  • Embrace the idea that leadership development is a continuous process and not just made up of one-time classes or one-off events.

  • Make leadership development more relevant and engaging by focusing programs on the organization’s current strategies and business issues.

  • Roll out relevant and appropriate development for all levels in the organization, including senior-most executives and the C-suite.

  • Don’t cut back on investing in leadership development when times get tough. That is the time to double down on efforts.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Development Needs Sponsorship at Top”

  1. One of the things we have learned through our programs and clients is that we have to define what we mean by support when we speak to senior leaders.

    It is not enough to say they support leadership development, or even to make leadership development part of their strategic plan. To be supportive and to be seen as supportive they also have to show up and engage with the participants, they have to ensure the supervisors of participants are making it possible for participants to attend without worrying about who will handle the minutiae of the day while they are off “learning,” and they have to ensure they are talking with participants about what they are learning and how they are applying what they are learning. We have experienced the difference it can make in participant engagement and application and sustaining of learning when executives are visible and talking about their expectations before, during and after any leadership development initiative.

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