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The 7 Deadly Sins of Global Business Leadership Development Programs

By Kimberly Wiefling

Note: This article was originally published in KIGYOU TO JINZAI 企業と人材 Magazine, and recently presented at the Marcus Evans HR Summit in Tokyo, Japan.

Everyone I work with these days wants to grow "global leaders," even if they can't explain exactly what that means. Many companies today are looking overseas for new markets and new customers in order to sustain the profitable growth of their businesses. New behaviors, skills, and thinking are required to succeed globally, and companies must act strategically in order to secure the talented people required to fulfill their increasingly global vision.

The War for Top Global Talent

A 2001 study by McKinsey & Company showed that companies considered as having top talent delivered 22 percent more ROI than those rated as having average employees. In addition, another study reported that 45 percent of organizational performance is due to leadership. What's more, population studies predict a shortage in the world's working-age population over the coming decades, most dramatically in Germany and Japan. Finally, a 2008 survey of global CEOs found that the #1 issue that these executives felt they would face in the coming 2-5 years was "staffing and skills."

Clearly recruiting, retaining, and developing talented people is one of the most important challenges facing global companies today. And yet when the current economic crisis began in 2008 -- an event I fondly refer to as "the worldwide economic mood disorder," or WWEMD for short -- many large US companies immediately eliminated some or all of their leadership development programs. Keep in mind that many such programs had already been eliminated during preceding decades of cost cutting. But now more than ever, sponsors of professional development programs have a responsibility to assure that the precious money being invested in such employee development programs is well spent, and delivers an indisputable ROI.

The 7 Deadly Sins

Unfortunately, predictable and avoidable pitfalls reduce the effectiveness of many global leadership development programs. Chief among these are what I fondly refer to as the 7 Deadly Sins of global leadership development programs. I have observed these problems at close range during many years of facilitating programs throughout the Silicon Valley and Japan. A good portion of this list applies to practically every company that I've consulted with over the past 10 years, and these 7 items form a highly effective checklist for anyone determined to extract the maximum benefit from their investment in global talent.

Here are the 7 deadly sins of global business leadership development programs, each of which will be discussed in more detail in the following section:

  1. Absence of visible senior executive support
  2. No definition of an effective "global business leader"
  3. Lack of clear goals, and no measurable success criteria
  4. "Frankenstein" programs, instead of an integrated approach
  5. Insufficient participant preparation prior to the program
  6. Participant distractions during the program
  7. No support, or accountability for delivering results, after the program ends

Let's explore each of these, and some of the underlying root causes, in greater detail.

Senior Executive Support

One of the most valuable aspects of a global leadership development program is the opportunity to meet with senior executives, and learn first-hand from their leadership philosophies and experiences. I worked with one Fortune 500 US firm that claimed to support employee development programs, but month after month we failed to secure a senior executive to speak to the participants. While budgetary support for the program is critical, personal involvement and active executive support sends a powerful message to participants about the importance of the program and the significance of their selection for participation.

I always strive to assure that senior executives agree to invest the time required to be visible through "senior leader dialogues," where they share their experiences in presentations and Q&A, informal social occasions, and by being present as the audience for status reports on the real-world challenging business projects that are a part of every effective global leadership development program.

What is an Effective "Global Business Leader"?

Leaders have only three tools, Action, Communication and Thinking (ACT), and followers can only perceive the first two of those. There are terrific leadership models, research results, and assessments, but I've found that there is no universally accepted definition of an effective global business leader's ACTs. Although some companies do have a clearly defined set of global leader core competencies, many have no idea what kind of global leader they are attempting to develop. A lame definition like "someone who can lead globally" just won't do. If development programs are to deliver the intended business results, they must aim for specific changes in mindset, communication and actions that will be effective in the culture and environment in which the business operates.

Naturally, the absence of a clear definition of a global leader on the client's part is no excuse for not having one ourselves when we purport to develop global leaders. In the absence of a definition, my team and I provide our own based on aggregated research on the topic, in the form of a Global Leadership Competence Instrument (GLCI), consisting of seven leadership characteristics in each of five key areas that can be used as a guide to the ideal global leader. For maximum effect, each company should customize the definition of a global business leader to suit their particular business environments, and then programs must be designed to develop and strengthen the observable behaviors associated with these characteristics in participants.

Goals and Measurable Success Criteria

The undisputed #1 cause of failure to achieve goals is the lack of clear and measurable goals. Because human resource development has largely been considered a "soft" skill, hard metrics of progress are a foreign concept for some HR managers. However, in today's demanding business environment, "What gets measured is what gets done" is true now more than ever. Only programs that deliver measurable success will continue to enjoy continued funding. Although some people protest that global leadership development is too intangible to measure, we have found that there are several credible ways to track the value of such programs:

Self-assessment - self-assessment by the participants of their progress in closing the gap between their current leadership competence and what is required to be an effective global leader.

360 Assessment - 360-degree assessment by people who manage, report to, or surround the participants in the work environment. In today's boundary-less organization, assessors may include suppliers, customers, alliance partners, and collaborators of various kinds.

Hard Measures of Business Results - tangible business results, such as increased revenue, reduced costs, increased quality, reduced turnover of employees, increased customer loyalty, reduced risk, increased profit, and ultimately share price. Although it may be challenging to directly link these hard business metrics to global leadership development programs, it can be done, especially if the programs include opportunities to apply what is learned to real business projects.

Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." But still, there is likely to be someone in your organization who rightly wants to know what they got for the money spent on global leadership development. We must quantify the value of these programs in order to get future programs funded.

Save Me from Frankenstein -- an Integrated Approach

Imagine that you have suddenly been directed to "increase the global leadership competency" of your company's mid-level managers, and been given a budget to accomplish this miracle. What is the optimal approach? Unfortunately the one frequently chosen by novices is to schedule a period of time in which high-potential leaders are sequestered in a "training" environment and subjected to a series of disconnected (and boring) lecture-based workshops intended to build the skills they will need to succeed.

Wrong answer! You might as well flush your money down the toilet.

According to the American Society of Training and Development, 50% of what is learned in "training" is immediately forgotten upon exiting the training room. Fully 80% is forgotten within two months. And a year later, you'd be hard pressed to get most participants to recall even a single "key insight" from their expensive experience. Just stringing together a series of training workshops, like pearls on a necklace, won't transform your people into effective global leaders. Thinking from the future, you've got to take an integrated approach, where the goals and measurable results drive every decision in the program. This is what's sometimes referred to as "design thinking," as opposed to a problem-solving approach. The only purpose for the programs that our team delivers is to enhance business results through changes in behavior, communication, and mindset.

Design your global leadership development programs with the goals clearly in mind, and assure that the whole program hangs together in a way in which every part supports every other part in perfect harmony. Anything else is just a Frankenstein's monster, stitched together, functioning, but awkward, ineffective, and possibly even repulsive to participants.

Insufficient Preparation

Your employees are busy. When you select them for a prestigious global leadership development program they still have a full-time job to occupy their every waking moment until that program begins. It's absolutely imperative that they and their managers understand the importance of the program, and how critical it is for them to arrive prepared to make best use of this precious experience.

Every truly effective global leadership development program does more than talk about global leadership, it requires participants to actively engage in a challenging global team project that strengthens their ability to achieve real world results in our increasingly VUCA world. These projects must be aligned with the strategy and core competencies of the company, and this requires significant work prior to the program in order to assure that the projects will be relevant and valuable.

In addition, participants must take time to think about their own personal goals for participation, and enlist the support of their managers, other colleagues, and even their families, so that they can make best use of their opportunity for a breakthrough in their ability to lead globally.

Distractions During the Program

No matter how important the development of the top talent is in your organization, it will never be the most urgent task vying for the attention of the participants. More pressing matters intrude on the most spectacular of professional development opportunities. Participants frequently find themselves fully occupied by daily tasks while simultaneously expected to attend and engage in a transformative experience that will shape them into the kind of global leaders they admire. You can imagine how ineffective this is!

The support of their direct manager is vital, and delegation -- a skill critical to the success of true leaders -- is key to freeing up participant bandwidth and assuring that the program is not just something squeezed in between routine meetings, phone calls, email, and other day-to-day job responsibilities. As short-sighted as this is, it's not unusual to find that a participant has been told by their manager to prioritize urgent work tasks above program participation, and even to skip attending parts of the program in favor of fulfilling day-to-day job responsibilities. And it's far too easy to make the argument that a business crisis demands the attention of someone who is otherwise committed to a long-term global leadership development program. Beware! This is a slippery slope! Before you know it, a third of the participants are arriving late, scooting out for lunch meetings, or leaving early to attend a "critical" appointment. The negative impact to the group experience, their team project, and their own development as global leaders, is palpable.

What works better? A signed agreement between the participant, their manager, and the program sponsor, stating up front the time commitment and attendance requirements, and clarifying expectations on all sides, makes the message clear: "This program is strategically important, and there is no excuse for not attending and taking full advantage of this opportunity to learn to lead our company powerfully into the global future!"

Post-Program Support, and Accountability for Results

It doesn't get any easier when the program ends. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, in "The Neuroscience of Leadership," report that such development programs alone increased productivity by 28 percent, but the addition of follow-up coaching increased productivity by 88 percent. And yet many programs end abruptly, without sufficient thought being given to the follow on support required for the participants and the company to derive the full benefit of the program.

Some look to program evaluations as a measure of success. But, in the end, the value of the program is not measured by the course evaluations, it is measured by the long-term business results achieved by those who participated in the program. It's relatively easy to achieve a high rating on a course evaluation for a workshop or training program. All that is required is to be entertaining and require little of the participants. However the real business benefit cannot be measured solely by programs with high participant evaluation scores. The value of a global leadership development program must be measured against the goals and metrics of success for the program, not "smile sheets" (a common euphemism for evaluations).

If participants are not asked to deliver business benefits as a result of their participation, little will change. But if managers support their participation during the program, ask them to report on their status and progress throughout the program, and hold them accountable for breakthrough business results after the program ends, participants are far more likely to contribute something tangible to the company as a result of the experience.

Some ways to enforce accountability include:

  • Ask participants to adopt new roles with greater responsibility after the program.
  • Require their participation in executive development coaching after the program ends to strengthen the gains that they have made in their global leadership.
  • Give them the responsibility to mentor and coach the next generation of participants.
  • Involve them in strategic dialogues with senior executives going forward.
  • Put them in a leadership role in special projects that leverage their developing skills.
  • Hold them accountable for being role models of global leaders.

In short, don't just let them return to their jobs after the program ends. It is well known that people rise or sink to the level of expectations set for them. Make sure that your expectations are challenging yet achievable, and are supported by managers, senior executives, alumni programs, and your HR team.

The Twisty Path to Greatness

It's a twisty and treacherous path that leads to greatness in the competitive global business environment, but your ability to survive and thrive as a global business depends upon your people having the ability to navigate that path with grace and agility. If you are responsible for developing your company's global business leaders of the future you have tremendous influence on how well positioned your company is to succeed in this incredibly competitive global business environment. By avoiding these 7 deadly sins you dramatically increase the chance that your company will survive and thrive well into the future.

Copyright Wiefling Consulting, Inc. 2009. All Rights Reserved.




Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Great article Kimberly! Your list of the 7 deadly sins is right on target. In my experience, a signed agreement between the participant and management (#6), and follow-up coaching (#7) are critical to the participant and company's future success.


Thank you for your comments, Mary! It's such a pity to spend so much money on professional development and then squander it due to poor execution.


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