The HBR October 2016 article “Why Leadership Training Fails” by Beer, Finnstrom and Scrhrader poses a radical rethink on training. Organisations spent US$356 billion globally on training in 2015 with questionable returns. The implications are uncomfortable – both for leaders and training professionals.
In a nutshell, training does not stick. People revert to what they have done in the past. The organisational context – the system – pushes them back. Their conclusion is:
- Senior executives must attend to organisational design – system change, and
- Link training to unit-by-unit, strategic initiatives that demand new behaviour
Intuitively, we know this research is right. Yet the solution is complex and difficult work. Leaders and training professionals will duck for cover. The current approach to leadership training simply requires us to match an identified need with a suitable course. Once complete the “box is ticked” and we can move on with confidence. We are kidding ourselves, wasting money and confusing people.
Solutions start at the top
The CEO and executive team define the strategic goals of each business unit and the new behaviours required. Business unit leaders have to own this, modelling these new behaviours themselves and demanding these behaviours from others.
New behaviours will be clunky, awkward and slow. Businesses rarely consider how to cultivate expertise in these new behaviours – a one day training program without support will not be enough to deliver change.
Enter the science of expert performance
Let’s imagine we want to take an elite squash player and teach them to play top-level tennis. We start by moving them from squash to tennis court (system change). Next they have to learn the rules and process. Then on to the basic elements of a game – serving, volley, backhand, forehand, etc. Imagine how many times a grand slam champion has practiced a cross-court backhand? And this is before they get into a real game. Putting all of these “behaviours” into a game plan to win…? We are tired just thinking about it.
How easy it is under pressure for this athlete to revert to a squash behaviour?
Welcome to the world of deliberate practice – specific goals, focused repetition, expert coaching and feedback.
How can we get this work in an organisation?
- Fix the obvious
Organisational life is neither rational nor sustainable. In short, people are sleep deprived, unfit, anxious, overloaded, frustrated and cynical. Courage is needed to create an organisational environment that demands people be at their best.
- Leaders must step up
Great leadership is transformative. Bad leadership can destroy a business unit. There is too much variability. Some leaders are hopelessly overloaded, some just cruising on past success. Few leadership teams are deliberate in defining the exact behaviours required. Leaders must explicitly model the resilience, empathy, focus and creativity required of their teams. Leadership must be measured on how well they and their people demonstrate these behaviours.
- Get serious about skill
The acceleration in the science and practice of elite performance has transformed sport and art. The 10,000-hour rule of specific, purposeful, deliberate and demanding practice has yet to hit the business world. We relegate training to a workshop or two over the year. What if we spent 10 years practicing to perfection a good coaching conversation; a team meeting; or client pitch?
- Support people
Elite performance requires proper support. Consider the New Zealand All Blacks, whose leadership is split three ways. Coaching of specific skills in each position, player wellbeing to secure optimal vitality and player logistics to get everyone to the right place in the right state. This may be the fastest growing job opportunity in the next 20 years. Successful organisations need experts to extract – through coaching and deliberate practice – the best from people.
Transformation takes time – strategy, structure, leadership focus, support systems and measurement. In short, we must move from the workshop to a multi-year adaptive programme that engages every leader and person in the team in the behaviour of excellence. It is not for everyone. It is inescapable for those organisations seeking greatness.
Finally, we need relentless curiosity. There is lots to study, practice, learn and adjust to. There are many ways to build sustainable high performance. We are at the beginning of the journey to master our wellbeing, our emotions and our minds.
Briana Palmer is a Consultant with The Resilience Institute in South East Asia. The practice of resilience is learning to be calm, energised, engaged, focused and in flow. She has 17 years of corporate experience working for leading multinational organisations across Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Briana has business management experience in a variety of disciplines including Business Development, Operations, Marketing, Strategy and Training. In addition, she has a strong interest in flexible work practices. She is a Certified Organisational Coach, Institute of Executive Coaching & Leadership (Level 1) and is passionate about sharing the benefits of the evidence based principles of The Resilience Institute.