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How to Get People (Outside of HR) Excited for Leadership Development


During a recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning, I enjoyed their segment on the business side of the professional speaking industry. The story ended with a quote from “the father of motivation” himself: Dr. Wayne Dyer. The interviewer asked Dyer why so many people are still hungry for motivational speeches. Dyer replied, “Because you don’t have to be sick to get better.”

Excited for Leadership DevelopmentDr. Dyer’s quote got me thinking about how this same idea relates to leadership development – how your leaders don’t have to be broken to improve. Corporate spending on leadership development tops $1 billion annually, according to a 2012 study by Deloitte. I’d be willing to bet that the healthiest companies in terms of financial and other performance metrics are also the biggest spenders on executive development – not companies that are “sick.”

How, then, do these pioneering organizations implement cutting-edge leadership development programs that actually provide a return on investment?

Answer: They get participants excited about attending, rather than dragging their feet to yet another HR initiative that takes them away from their busy job.

Sound like a challenge? Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Start with “applied learning” to make it real. Too many leadership training programs are rooted in the one-to-many traditional style of delivery. While that method may work well for college freshmen learning basic chemistry, studies have shown that adult learners retain about half of what was taught within two weeks. Successful development programs put real opportunities on the table for discussion – not just case studies written in the past tense, but instead the actual challenges that their leaders are facing. In these settings, the conversation becomes the content and is much more powerful than an expert who prescribes solutions to the group.
  2. Implement ongoing programs that sustain momentum. You’d be surprised at how many organizations still see leadership development as a check-box exercise – something that can be “taught” in a weekend and quickly forgotten (see point #1). In order to influence real behavioral change (which can only happen over time), leadership development must also be something that is revisited over the course of an executive’s career.
  3. Link leadership development to the strategy of the organization. If your leadership development goals are not tied directly to your business goals, then why bother? Your leaders should be able to envision how their learning and continuous improvement as leaders will affect the organization’s bottom line. I wrote a bit about this idea earlier in the year.
  4. Create connections. Leaders who have better relationships with their colleagues are more engaged at work, since they’re able to rely on their network to make better decisions and are more likely to reach out to ask for help or advice. An effective leadership development program should help foster those relationships and should provide a forum for building trust. Bonus points if trust is increased between departments or divisions, who may be more skeptical or cynical towards each other. Many times in our work with Fortune 1000 companies, our members say they never fully understood or appreciated other parts of the organization – and that those new connections are invaluable.
  5. Involve senior-level business leaders. When leadership development is embraced and supported by the C-suite (and not just the HR or learning and development folks), it sends a strong message about the importance of such activities. That message becomes even harder to ignore when senior executives actively participate in their own leadership development, demonstrating their willingness to “go first,” which can create a powerful cascading effect throughout the organization.

By using these five ideas as a starting point, you can create a culture among your executives and high potentials that will have them not only embracing leadership development programs – but asking for more.

Because you don’t have to be sick to get better.

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