Investing in time: how to ensure leadership development is successful

L&D leaders often find themselves in a bind. Tasked with developing talent as well as fixing whatever ails the organisation, hopes are high. Especially if an external L&D provider is appointed; the expectation of many senior executives, is that development work will begin immediately.

As beliefs around L&D go, that’s about as damaging as they come. It’s also one of the most common. If time isn’t allocated to a thorough diagnostic phase then it’s not possible to design a programme that addresses the organisation’s aims.

The senior team may have little appetite for a diagnosis, preferring to simply ‘get on with it’. Yet, investing time in a thorough diagnostic phase up front pays dividends down the line.

Spend time up front, secure a better ROI on L&D initiatives

 When faced with the prospect of making changes or fixing something that’s broken, the temptation to jump in is compelling. And when there’s a ready-made programme available, the temptation grows. Bells and whistles are appealing and the promise of a quick fix, with minimum effort and maximum impact, is beguiling.

The hard truth is, there’s no such thing as a quick fix. An ‘off-the-shelf’ programme won’t meet the organisation’s needs. And if these are not met, there will be no significant, lasting change. The outcome? All of the time spent on the development work itself will go to waste. Cue frustration and an underlining of the belief that ‘L&D doesn’t work.’

For those heading up L&D departments this poses a challenge. The job of asking for more time to carry out a diagnosis, in the face of a ‘get on with it’ attitude is often an uphill struggle. And so the desire to fast-forward the diagnostic phase increases. As with other aspects of life and work, ‘busyness’ is often mistaken for productivity. Getting straight to the ‘busy’ work feels like progress, yet it offers a false sense of achievement that won’t deliver over the long term.

What’s the value of a diagnosis?

 The effort and the time put into a programme is wasted, unless a thorough diagnosis has been carried out first of all. Without it, an externally appointed provider doesn’t know which tools are the most appropriate for the job. And no matter how effective those tools are, if they’re not the right ones, then the issue will remain broken.

An outside job: why those in the know don’t necessarily make the best development decisions

 Leaders, managers, and even staff often have an idea of what isn’t working in the business, or what could change for the better. This doesn’t always help L&D professionals to speak up and ask for external assistance. Telling senior people that they are anything other than correct is a daunting prospect!

Yet it’s exactly why an external party can add value by carrying out their own diagnosis:

  • It’s a chance to observe the organisation, which gives the external provider a greater understanding of staff and leaders’ experiences. To be really effective, diagnostic phases really do need to be carried out by a skilled and experienced coach. Especially when the diagnostic has been resisted by senior leaders. Asking questions, probing attitudes and beliefs, and watching how things work reveals a great deal. It shows, in a practical way, what needs attention – not simply what those at the top say needs attention.
  • A diagnostic phase means all of the awkwardness and potential misunderstandings are addressed at the beginning of the relationship. Both parties can then have open, direct conversations about the programme’s scope and goals.

Hearing what an ‘outsider’ has observed isn’t always easy listening. Conversations are sometimes uncomfortable. What they do provide, is a solid foundation for building a successful programme that makes a difference in the long term.

L&D programmes and providers that are fit for purpose

A diagnostic process will reveal whether a programme is fit for purpose. Establishing what needs attention means that the programme can be tailored to meet those needs.

There are two major benefits of designing a bespoke programme:

  1. The external L&D provider can confidently recommend a specific course of action.
  2. The organisation can feel reassured that the provider to whom they have committed their time, effort and budget, is serious about facilitating a programme that aims to bring about lasting change.

Without this phase, providers can’t confidently say that the recommendations or programme they put forward are genuinely fit for purpose. And in the end, that wastes everyone’s time – as well as the organisation’s money!

What benefit can an external provider offer, over and above an internal L&D professional?

The L&D professionals that we encounter during the course of our work are without doubt competent and capable. However, the biggest advantage that an external provider has over an employee of the organisation, is exactly that. Someone external is not blinkered by the everyday politics. They are separate; their ‘outsider’ status means that it’s more likely that both leaders and staff will be open with them. This honesty means greater clarity for the provider, and increases the chance that they can deliver the most appropriate and effective development work.

This makes a big difference when the reason for undertaking a programme in the first place is to ‘remedy’ rather than develop. Particularly where the senior team is concerned. As mentioned above, notifying the most senior people in an organisation that their behaviour is a problem isn’t something many would likely volunteer for! Thus, unhelpful situations at the top tend to persist. Likewise, if the senior team are unconvinced by L&D, achieving buy-in is a battle too.

It’s important to point out that no L&D professional, whether internal or external, can force anybody to change. As adult learning principlestell us, an individual needs to be motivated to change themselves. However, being external to the organisation makes having those difficult conversations with senior people easier – which can help prompt that motivation.

Starting with the end in mind

Outcomes are a crucial part of the diagnostic phase. Experiences of L&D initiatives can be mixed, according to what individuals have experienced in the past. A lack of outcomes is usually where development initiatives are perceived to have failed. Pinning these down initially make it clear to all involved where the journey is headed.

Even when organisations are committed to thorough development work and are open to the notion of a diagnostic phase, outcomes are still frequently vague. Broad aims such as improve X or Y, or change ‘such and such’ are well-intentioned but unspecific.

How to define an outcome:

  • Knowing that something needs to change is the starting point. To truly define an outcome, leaders need to articulate how a situation will look after X or Y is improved.
  • Providers might ask questions such as:
    – What will tell you that the programme has been a success?
    – Will you look for evidence of success? What might that be?
    – How will you feel once the programme has finished?

By understanding how things look once they are ‘better’, providers are able to offer the most effective help for businesses to get there. What’s more, it involves the organisation in the process of their own development. Being active in learning, according to the principles of adult learning, means that individuals feel involved and are committed to changing. There’s also a much better chance that they will take on new behaviours in the long run.

Cost vs. investment: why the time taken by a diagnostic is the latter

There’s no getting away from the fact that going through a diagnostic phase takes time. And while skipping over it feels like a time-saving plan, the reality is somewhat different. Any perceived ‘saving’ that is gained by avoiding a diagnosis, is cancelled out by the development phase. Of course, L&D initiatives can go wrong for any number of reasons. Though failing to devote the necessary time to them plays a large part. It’s incumbent on the leaders of organisations to give themselves a fighting chance of success, otherwise an external provider will certainly struggle.

If you have a vision for L&D and you’re struggling to achieve buy-in from the board, get in touch. We can’t promise a miracle cure. We can promise that we’ll listen and offer our honest thoughts. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and would welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

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