• Best Practices in Leadership Development

    21 Best Practices in Leadership Development

    Leadership Development is Important

    Research and experience show that the quality of leadership affects employee effort and productivity; the ability to attract and retain talent; customer service and retention; profitability and market capitalization. Leadership development, done well, is a powerful way to build talent, unlock the potential of your people, improve individual and organizational performance, and drive change.

    Here are 21 best practices in leadership development and talent management: working on yourself, your team, and your organization. The focus here is on best practices rather than popular practices. Some are based on best practices of world leading companies, others emerged from years of intense experimentation and many were created to help leaders embed development in their daily work.

    Opportunity identification: Which practices will help you improve your success as a leader? Which practices will help your organization take its talent management to the next level? Where are the biggest opportunities for improvement—which improvements will have the biggest sustainable impact on performance for you and your organization?

    Take it for a spin: You don’t become a great leader by admiring good ideas. Pick a practice and take it for a spin. When you figure out how to do it well, go back to the well to find your next opportunity for improvement.

    21 Best Practices in Leadership Development:

    1. Every year when performance planning, and for major projects and big challenges, set two goals: (i) your performance goals / KPI’s / business objectives, and (ii) a learning goal. A learning goal can be random or tied to your business goal: something you want or need to learn from that job or project. Proactively manage both sets of goals all year long—or throughout the project—by regularly debriefing both sets of goals during and after the experience. “How am I doing on my project goals? And how am I doing on my learning goal?”
    2. Set one good development goal per year that you’ll actually accomplish. Make it a theme for the year. Pick something big, something interesting, and work on it all year long. Take a workshop; read a couple of books; and apply the best ideas to your job to improve your performance. Just think of the power and results over ten years: ten major new skills or skill improvements. Wow! This is far more effective than 100 good intentions.
    3. Build your strengths: It’s sometimes important to work on your weaknesses but you’ll have more fun and do bigger and better things if you focus on building your strengths. Your strengths are your meat & potato skills—the skills that help you make a living; the skills that help you get hired and promoted. If you spend your whole life working on your weaknesses, at the end of your career you’ll end up with a big bag full of very strong weaknesses. Instead, spend your career building and leveraging your strengths—playing to your strengths.
    4. Think one level up: Act like a specialist but think like a generalist, and help your employees do the same. When your boss is making big decisions, make a note in a private journal what decision your boss made and what decision you would have made. Then add a note speculating on what you think would happen with each decision. When the situation has played itself out, make a note on what happened, how your boss’s decision turned out, and speculate again on what impact your decision might have had—now that you have the full picture. After you do this a half a dozen times it will become a highly developmental exercise for you. From time to time try to identify patterns: how you and your boss make decisions—what you see, what you miss, etc. But whatever you do, don’t second guess your boss; no back-seat driving; you still have to support team decisions.
    5. Debrief regularly to stay on track, learn from experience, and drive continuous improvement. Debrief before, during, and after major projects, assignments, promotions, etc. If you don’t stop from time to time to ask: “Did it work?”, “Was that the best way to do it?”, “How could we have done that better?” then you are operating on hunches, intuition, luck, and habit rather than facts, evidence, and analysis. And you are not building real experience & learning. Debriefing is the best way to turn “being busy” into learning and development. Use this practice on both your business and development goals. Learn to work and work to learn!
    6. Be an employee and company champion: Help your employees be successful in their jobs and design their jobs for maximum benefit to the organization—so that when employees do a good job, the company benefits as well. Define success and help them be successful in win-win terms to create a virtuous cycle of success for both employees and the company. Being an employee champion also means caring about and responding to their workplace concerns. Make sure employees voices are heard at the top of the company. You can also be an employee champion by celebrating successes and sharing the credit.
    7. Plan for and manage both job effectiveness & job satisfaction. If employees are productive but miserable, or conversely, happy but unproductive, it won’t last—you’re headed for disaster. That’s a bad way to do business and it is not sustainable. Employees must be both productive and satisfied. Managing productivity and job satisfaction begins right at the beginning—with new employee orientation: “Hey, welcome to the team. We want you to be really happy, productive, and successful here.” Then make it so.
    8. Always pay attention to both performance and talent. Leaders often under-value and under-leverage meetings. Meetings are powerful opportunities to (i) check in, offer support, nurture employee relationships; (ii) debrief performance and progress; and (iii) assess talent. Every meeting, collaborative effort, and discussion is a chance to observe and assess the talent on your team, i.e., assess employee engagement, skills, performance, deployment, and potential. You can assess talent everyday by paying attention to employee participation, the quality of their ideas, how well they are performing, the risks they take, the mistakes they make, how well they understand the business, awareness of their impact on others, gaps in skills and knowledge, readiness for more responsibility, and so on. Identifying their challenges and development needs enables you to deploy and develop team talent more effectively.
    9. Deploy for learning: Instead of always putting your best person on the job, whenever possible give projects to the person who can learn the most from the experience. Be prepared to offer more coaching support to those doing the task for the first time. And be proactive in your coaching to support both learning and project success. Note: if no one on your team is ever ready, willing, and able to take on these new roles (not ready or deserving of the opportunity), then help them get ready. Invest in developing your team.
    10. Leadership brand: You can’t be all things to all people. Every year ask yourself: Why would talented people want to work hard for me? What am I best at as a leader? What do I most have to offer my employees? What is my biggest value-added as a leader? It is important to maintain your competence in most key areas of leadership but find one or two areas in which you can really shine! You will know you are making progress when you become a leader of choice—when your employees are more productive and engaged and when it is easier for you to attract and retain talent.
    11. Balance: Strive to find a balance between: (i) what you are best at, (ii) what the business situation calls for, and (iii) what your employees most need from you. You can also try to balance your short and long term development needs, i.e., what you need to learn now and for your next move up the ladder.
    12. Proactive: Talent is too precious to waste. Don’t sit around hoping the cream will rise to the top. When it comes to managing talent, “survival of the fittest” is negligent. A strong team makes you look good and makes you more successful. A strategy of “proactive development of the fittest” is the most responsible strategy to use with your firm’s greatest asset. It is also a crucial investment in your future success. Manage talent proactively—with intention and purpose. If you don’t know how to do it, then its time to upgrade your skills.
    13. Lessons of experience #1: Opportunities: People learn most from doing. They learn more from experience than from workshops. Just like doctors and lawyers, a bunch of degrees might get you in the door but good apprenticeships and years of practices are required to master the craft. You need quality hands-on experience—with coaching support—to become a great leader. Help future leaders become well-rounded by finding and creating great opportunities for them to learn from: stretch assignments, P&L responsibility, start-ups, turn-arounds, staff to line and line to staff, etc. The classic book on this is by McCall, Lombardo & Morrison, The Lessons of Experience (Lexington Books, 1988).
    14. Lessons of experience #2: Support: People learn most from doing. Give them the support they need to get as much as possible out of their work experiences. Classic techniques include LD, coaching, mentoring, and debriefing. Assessments and 360° feedback can be valuable if they come with coaching and are tied to real work issues, i.e., organizational challenges and opportunities. As an individual strategy (for your own development), find people who can help you debrief your big experiences; find a mentor; create a little personal board of directors.
    15. Team level succession planning: Every manager in your organization (yourself included) can align their coaching with succession planning. Every year assess the employees on your team: (i) Who needs help mastering their current position? (ii) Who is ready for more responsibility (same level)? And (iii) who is ready to start preparing for a promotion—a move up the ladder? These three situations call for completely different kinds of coaching, and this assessment method will help you coach people according to their needs. Benefits: your coaching will be more relevant and effective; everyone gets a fresh and fair chance every year based on actual performance and readiness; and it is much more actionable than other succession planning methods—you are judging a person’s current needs and potential rather than their future and maximum potential.
    16. Leaders at all levels: Start leadership training right at the front lines. Help everyone improve their performance, skills, and values (execution of core values). Help everyone lead by example. Leadership starts with initiative and ownership (accountability), which we can foster at all levels of the organization. It is true that leadership might come more easily to some people than others (some are more “natural” at it) but everyone can improve their leadership practices, results, and “footprint”—their impact on the business and on the world.
    17. Leadership Pipeline: Turn your organization into a talent making machine by managing the flow of leaders through your organization. Build an open and flowing talent pipeline; remove the clogs and bottlenecks; find the highest leverage development points (linchpin positions); develop appropriately to the different levels of leadership; and identify, support, and reward leaders who are great at developing talent. The classic book on this topic is by Charan, Drotter, and Noel, Leadership Pipeline (Jossey-Bass 2001).
    18. Organizational capacity: We need more than a gaggle of talented individuals bound together by a URL. Leadership is a team sport.  In addition to building the skills of individual leaders, build organizational capacity as well. Develop teams of leaders and leaders of teams. Across your organization, invest in developing team leadership, collaborative practice, and facilitative leadership. Encourage your leaders to share leadership, i.e., engage employees in the challenges and opportunities of the business. This practices is both highly motivating, a bedrock of development, and it makes employees part of the solution, which is the holy grail of engagement.
    19. Culture of leadership: Building a culture of leadership is the ultimate objective of LD. A few great workshops are not enough—never going to cut it. Good leadership must become part of the organization’s DNA: we expect it; hire & train for it; coach & mentor it; hold people accountable for it; consider it when making promotions; and senior leaders lead by example—they model desired behavior. Talent considerations must become part of your scorecard and everyday business conversations. Use OD to anchor leadership and LD in culture.
    20. Strategic leadership development: Align LD and succession planning with strategy. Organizational level: Developing which skills will have the biggest impact on organizational success and sustainability given our unique vision and strategy? Team level: Developing which skills will have the biggest impact on my team’s performance? Individual level: Developing which skills will have the biggest impact on my performance and my long term employability and success as a leader?
    21. Make senior leaders part of the solution: LD will under-perform and won’t be sustainable unless senior executives support it. There are many ways they can do this: as program sponsors and champions; coaches and mentors; LD program discovery, testing, and auditing; and of course, leading by example. You also need to teach them how to share leadership in order to develop the next generation of leaders. There are many ways for senior leaders to get involved and make a difference. Make your executives part of the solution—believe in them; they can do it! Until this happens across your organization, support talent development on your own team. Don’t wait until the world is perfect. Start now. Do what you can in your own backyard. If you get really good at it, you might get a chance one day to champion LD more broadly across your organization—and you will be ready for the challenge.


    Notice that we are working on both the supply of leaders (with training and coaching) and the demand for leaders (by creating opportunities for learning). We work on a pipeline for leaders to move through (channels of development through the organization) and we help everyone leverage their important experiences (with coaching and debriefing). We start building talent at the bottom and insist that the most senior executives lead by example—we hold everyone accountable for their behavior. We understand that training does not work in isolation—training works best when supported by goal setting, execution, coaching, and OD (for major initiatives). And we build a culture of leadership by anchoring expectations for our leaders in culture—with selection, deployment, engagement, development, performance management, and other core organizational systems, policy, and structure.

    Obviously, you need to have a strong, value-adding HR team. And equally important, you need to let them do their work. At the end of the day, HR can’t manage your team. They can only teach you how to do a better job of leading your team, and set up organizational systems to support development—if you let them.

    Great leaders take the high road. These best practices assume that doing the right thing, and doing it well, is the best way to go—helping your employees, your employer, and your stakeholders do well.

    Joel Shapiro, Ph.D. is a leadership educator and culture guru with Incrementa Consulting. Joel helps companies develop leadership capacity, make employees part of the solution, and find the perfect blend of humanity and business performance. You can follow Joel on the Incrementa website and on Twitter.

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