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How to Improve Your Leadership Development Investment Performance

What you need to know to get the most significant return from leadership development.

We intuitively know that for leaders to be successful, we need to invest in developing our skills as leaders. The more a leader learns and effectively applies the better they become, and consequently, our organizations achieve better results. This statement is the tenet of leadership development. While there is truth to that statement, it overestimates the impact of the leader on the company and individual results, and it underestimates the impact of company culture, the leader-follower relationship and specific traits. Leaders perform within a company culture and are a part of the culture. Also, by sheer numbers alone the most substantial part of an organization is followers, not leaders. We tend to look to a leader to solve our problems rather than focusing on the reality that a company achieves most of their results through followers. By definition leaders need followers, or they are not leaders. Let's define leadership as service to others and followership as service to the leader both united in a common purpose and dependent on each other. To achieve greater success and maximize our leadership development investment performance we need to make some changes.

One More Tool for the Toolbelt

While the concept of followership is relatively new as compared to leadership, let’s consider a practical but fictitious leadership scenario to help us understand its meaning. You have likely heard the saying in leadership training that you are going to get another tool for your toolbelt. So, what if I gave builder “X” the best tools in their toolbelt, coached them to be their best physically, mentally and spiritually and put them in harsh working conditions and gave them a capable team that all spoke and understood different languages. Then I gave builder “Y” of same physical, mental, and spiritual well-being the same tools in their toolbelt and placed them in a good working environment with a capable team that all spoke the same language. Then I presented both builders with a challenge where they had the same amount of time and resources to build the same house. Which do you think would create the best home? Of course, the answer is obvious that a builder with better working conditions and a team that can communicate effectively can outperform a team in harsh conditions and cannot communicate effectively or efficiently. For too long companies have focused leadership development on the tools in the toolbelt of the leader, or the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of the leader and not stopped to consider the impact of the leader-follower relationship, organizational culture, and specific traits. Before discussing what senior leaders need to understand and what they can do to maximize a company’s leadership development return on investment, let’s quickly take a step back and recognize how we got here.

Globalization and Today’s Workforce Realities

The business world is shrinking as large multinational companies continue to expand into new markets, and the makeup of our workforce in our companies is becoming more diverse. One of the critical issues facing most senior leaders is the lack of having ready now employees within their organization. For more than ten years we have known that as the Baby Boomers start to retire organizations would begin to struggle to find talent. Generation X is not large enough to fill the gaps created by the Baby Boomers exiting organizations. In turn, each of the past five years the war for talent has continued to intensify globally. In the past, it was a company-specific problem, but now globally countries are recognizing the challenges and looking at their policies to help expand their country’s workforce. If you listen to the news, you know our world is full of complex problems like cybersecurity, and global political uncertainty but the topic of talent management is in discussions from the boardroom to the breakroom and companies are turning to leadership development to help solve their complex challenges. The leadership development industry is booming. Likely your company is making new investments in leadership development or considering an investment.

3 Insights You Need to Understand

Here are three insights to help you understand how to maximize your company’s leadership development return on investment.

1. Understanding the Leader-Follower Relationship

Followership is a relatively new term in comparison to leadership with some of the earliest research literature originating out of the 1960s. Today followership is often seen as common sense, or passive activity; however, conversely effective followership is active and courageous. We are not talking about effective followership being a “yes man” but of speaking truth to leadership and daring to disagree. Buildings and equipment do not achieve results without employees in organizations. Every organizational result is the direct contribution of, at some point, someone doing something, and by sheer numbers in organizations it often comes down to followers. Additionally, even leaders in organizations are followers. The CEO of a publicly traded company will be a leader for the company and a follower to the board of directors. It is common to think of the value of the follower in the leader-follower relationship as a minimum of being half of the total value of the relationship, but it is likely more accurate to think of the value of working on the leader-follower relationship as a multiplier. The follower can improve the results of the leader, and the leader can enhance the outcomes of the follower. Globally organizations sub-optimize leadership development investments when focusing only on the leader. Healthy leader-follower relationships require a supportive organizational culture, specific traits, and development to enhance corporate results from leadership development investments.

2. Cultural Context for the Leader-Follower Relationship

Culture is one of those words that if you ask ten employees to define it, you will get ten different responses. Contemporary definitions recognize culture as far more than only what employees do at work, and culture impacts social relationships like the leader-follower relationship. The globalization of the workforce within companies creates an increasingly complex and diverse workplace with a variety of beliefs, values and behavioral norms represented. You may notice these cultural differences by hearing employees talking about how it feels different in this office as opposed to another office, observing leader performance shifts when they take on new but similar responsibility for leading different workgroups, or when there are diverse perspectives on an identified successor. To focus solely on leader development and exclude the culture in which the leader-follower relationship exists limits the effectiveness of the investment in the leader. Cultural beliefs, values, and norms also need to be understood and aligned to support the leader-follower relationship. Research exists for how cultural values support leadership such as, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer, but there is limited work on understanding how cultural values support followership. It is crucial for organizations to have a culture where the leader-follower relationship can thrive. Globalization and the increasing diversification of the workforce will continue to increase the significance of company culture on leader-follower relationships and organizational results.

3. Follower and Leader Traits

The research on an ideal follower and an ideal leader is similar in that there is a lack of agreement on a standard definition for both. However, the volume of research on followership lags leadership research. A quick search of Google for the word “leadership” returns 2.0 billion hits, and the word “followership” returns 0.001 billion hits (as of September 20, 2018). The expanding use of technology that allows information within a company to flow more quickly and freely is also enabling independent decision making by followers. One of the essential traits for a follower is the willingness to disagree and let the leader know the truth even when it is difficult to deliver. Inversely a critical characteristic for a leader is active listening. Leaders need to be able to listen not only to what is said but the feelings also being shared. Recently there has been an increase in focus from senior leaders on understanding the success traits of leaders for use in selection, competency models for development, performance management, and succession planning. Once a company defines the attributes of effective leader-follower relationships they can be used to create similar models for selection, development, and performance. Senior leaders can then use these talent management processes to measure performance and provide meaningful feedback and recognition to employees.

4 Steps You Can Take Now

The following is a simple four-step approach to help you get started improving your leadership development investment.

Step 1. Setting the Stage

A good start for introducing the concept and attributes of effective leader-follower relationships is to conduct a workshop with the company’s senior leadership team on the topic of understanding the meaning of the word’s followership and leadership. The purpose of this discussion is to reinforce the importance of the leader-follower relationship, surface cultural differences that likely exist in a diverse workforce, and start building alignment toward a company definition for both leadership and followership. After discussing definitions, you can use the research that exists on leadership and followership to define the traits identified for effective leader-follower relationships in company-specific language. An example would be to take the followership trait of speaking truth to leadership and leadership trait of active listening and discuss behavioral examples of what each would look like put into action within the company. Enlisting the help of the senior leadership team in identifying and describing the attributes is to help ensure buy-in for company standards when incorporating these into the various talent management processes.

Step 2. Creating a Movement

Next, engage intact work teams in workshops set up similarly as in the prior step with the senior leadership team. It is essential to use this workshop to discover cultural differences that exist across the organization and work toward alignment. Senior leaders choosing to engage the workforce in this discussion need to recognize the relationship between time, cost and quality. Each of these variables impacts the next. Companies that only invest a minimal amount of time and funding will have limited quality and vice-versa.

Step 3. Building Reinforcement

At this point, it is important to update the appropriate company competency development models, performance management processes, and job descriptions if they exist to include the ideal leader-follower relationship traits identified in steps 1 and 2. Updating these documents and processes provides clear and explicit expectations and feedback for leaders and followers.

Step 4. Creating Sustainability

It will also be essential to consider long-term sustainability so incorporating this development into the orientation and onboarding will assist with assimilating new employees into the culture and company. Development of employees in the concept and attributes of the leader-follower relationship will maximize the value in leadership development investments.

The intent of this article is not to present that multinational companies facing increased globalization should focus on the leader-follower relationship instead of leadership development, but rather on these critical insights for greater company success and improved leadership development investment performance.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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