No More Leadership Development?
The term “leadership development” has morphed over the years. It used to refer to executive education programs, housed at business schools and populated by rising vice presidents sent off to those ivy-draped enclaves to receive the polish deemed necessary for top corporate jobs. But starting in the 1990s, two things happened.
First, HR departments, facing intensified scrutiny into the cost and outcomes of their activities, began to question the value of executive finishing schools and seek out less expensive ways to do the “finishing.” Second, people started to see effective leadership as a competitive differentiator. Business gurus argued that leadership practices, demonstrated not just by executives but by all employees, were key drivers of organizational success. By the time Ram Charan published “The Leadership Pipeline” in 2000, businesses saw “leaders at all levels” as a must-have.
Thus was born the multi-level in-house leadership curriculum. Participants were separated by their place in the hierarchy—first-line leader, mid-level leader, senior leader or executive—but all were dubbed leaders, and all were presented with a smorgasbord of “leadership” concepts, skills and tools. This system persists today.
The problem is that this type of leadership curriculum comprises three distinct types of learning, with three distinct and sometimes incompatible sets of goals. Abetted by all-encompassing leadership competency models, which also came into vogue in the 1990s, L&D pros have been mixing and mingling these different types of learning as if they were one.
We’ve focused on the horizontal view: the leadership pipeline and the appropriate skills for each level. We’ve given far less attention to the vertical view: the three very different categories of competence that sit under the leadership umbrella, as follows:
Managers need to be leaders, of course. But anyone with authority over direct reports needs a specific set of management skills. These skills include delegating work, evaluating performance, coaching and delivering feedback. And while Peter Drucker and Marcus Buckingham are correct that good managers are more than spreadsheet-tappers and assignment-givers—after all, a good manager knows that his or her job is to motivate others—it’s also true that managers have unique responsibilities to those they manage and must know how to wield their authority responsibly.
Perhaps your organization has decided to do without “manager” titles. That’s fine, but if you still grant people authority over other people in certain circumstances, management skills are important.
Influence is what some call “lateral leadership,” “non-positional leadership” or “leadership without authority.” It’s not about persuasion or getting “my” way; rather, it’s about working effectively with others to find “our” way. When it comes to influence, attitude trumps skill; would-be influencers need to believe in and value collaborative relationships based on trust, support and power-sharing.
Much of what we call leadership—the ability to define a path and mobilize others to move along that path, whether or not they report to us—is actually influence. When my colleague Dr. Maggie Walsh conducted research in 2009 to update an influence training program, she found that positional authority makes very little difference, nowadays, to people’s willingness to follow someone. In other words: Managers are still managers, but leaders are influencers.
3. Business Acumen
Business acumen—knowledge about strategy, finance and marketing—is the meat and potatoes of MBA and executive education programs. Many still see it as the defining trait of a senior-level manager and often confuse it, at that level, with capital-L Leadership ability. Most MBA programs, however, aren’t great at teaching leadership; most organizations find it necessary to put their MBA hires through the same leadership curricula as their non-MBAs.
Business acumen, along with related topics such as strategic thinking and innovation, tends to dominate the top level of leadership competency models, a holdover from the days when “executive education” was synonymous with “MBA-style courses.” In this age of knowledge work, though, every employee from the shop floor to the C-suite needs at least some business acumen. And the C-suite, in turn, needs management and influence skills.
These three areas of competence differ in their makeup. Management is mostly about behaviors and processes—for example, five steps for giving feedback, or how to run a coaching session. Influence is about beliefs and mindsets; if you don’t genuinely value collaborative relationships, your influence techniques will come across as manipulative and fall flat. And business acumen is about concepts and intelligences—for example, wrapping your head around competitive analyses, P&L statements, or a brand message.
Of course, any manager needs all of these skills, and the dividing lines are fuzzy, which is why it’s so easy to perceive these areas as one big clump called “leadership.” But at their heart, management is about doing, influence is about being and business acumen is about knowing. They must be taught differently.
So let’s say goodbye to the generic leadership curriculum with its rigid, outdated levels. In its place, let’s develop:
- Management workshops for anyone, at any level, with direct reports
- Influence learning journeys for all employees, ideally grouped in natural work teams
- Business acumen courses for all employees, with content appropriate to each person’s role in the organization
And pipelines? Let’s leave them to the oil companies.
Jocelyn Davis is an international leadership consultant/author and former training company executive. Her latest book is “THE GREATS ON LEADERSHIP: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers,” which SUCCESS magazine calls “a book of substance that is a joy to read.”