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ARTICLE: What’s missing in leadership development?

Updated: May 1


A recent McKinsey survey uncovered overwhelming evidence that the plethora of services, books, articles, seminars, conferences, and TED-like talks—a $50 billion global industry purporting to have the answers to many organizational challenges—are delivering disappointing results.

According to a recent Fortune survey, only 7% of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, and only 10% said their leadership-development initiatives have a clear business impact. McKinsey's latest research shows that only 11% of more than 500 executives polled around the globe strongly agree that their leadership-development interventions achieve and sustain their desired results.


Yet the need for leaders who are good at recognizing emerging challenges then inspiring organizational responses is intensifying as they confront things like digitization, data as a competitive weapon, and workplace automation enhancing business performance. Technology-driven shifts are demanding more and better leaders up and down the line of organizational change.

McKinsey asked the executives they surveyed which circumstances their leadership-development programs were effective in and which were not. They found that a lot needs to happen for leadership development to work at scale, and that there is no “silver bullet” to singlehandedly make the difference between success and failure. Four sets of interventions that matter most for building successful leadership-development programs were identified:

  • Focus on the shifts that matter—organizations with successful leadership-development programs were 8 times more likely to have focused on leadership behavior that executives believed were critical drivers of business performance. Enhancing the ability of leaders to adapt to different situations and adjust their behavior (requiring a high degree of self-awareness and a teachable mind-set) greatly prepares them to lead amidst change.

  • Make it an organizational journey, not cohort specific—interventions, leadership strategy, and models that reach all levels of the organization is challenging, sporadic, and piecemeal—making it difficult for programs to keep up with changes in the organization’s priorities or to develop a critical mass of leaders ready to pursue them. Yet technology is enabling faster, more flexible, large-scale learning on digital platforms that can host tailored leadership development, among other possibilities.

  • Design for the transfer of learning—employing several modern adult-learning principles grounded in neuroscience enables companies to speed the behavior and mind-set shifts their leaders need to thrive in a fast-changing environment. These include principals such as requiring participants to apply their learnings in new settings over an extended period while practicing them in their job, learning through a positive frame (building on a strength rather than correcting a development area), and providing coaching that encourages introspection and self-discovery.

  • Embedding change—adapting systems, processes, and culture that can support change-enabling leadership development is critically important. Blogs, video messages, and social-media platforms help leaders engage with many more people as they seek to foster understanding, create conviction, and act as role models. Successful programs involve senior leaders acting as project sponsors, mentors, and coaches. Data-enabled talent-management systems—popularized by Google and often referred to as people analytics—can increase the number of people meaningfully evaluated against new competencies and boost the precision of that evaluation.

Time and again, CEOs who know the impact of accelerating disruption and the need to adapt in response forget about the need to translate strategy into specific organizational capabilities. If CEOs and their top teams are serious about long-term performance, they need to simplify their programs and focus on what really matters. Read the full McKinsey article here.

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© 2016 by Boylston Strategic Leadership Associates.

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