Leadership development can’t succeed without a significant investment of time

All eyes are on you. You’re responsible for developing the organisation’s best talent or finding a way to fix anything that’s ailing the organisation. Hopes are high. So, when you appoint an external learning and development provider, the expectation is to jump straight in and start development work immediately.

That’s a dangerous path and one that leads to a dead end, in fact. Without a thorough diagnostic phase, it’s impossible to design a programme with any significant hope of addressing the organisation’s aims. Like trying to service an engine with the bonnet closed, a provider that isn’t allowed the time and space to investigate how the components fit together can’t be expected to maintain the engine so it runs smoothly.

Senior leaders’ patience to carry out precursory investigations may be thin. But if you invest time in a diagnostic process up front, it will pay you back down the line.

Skip the diagnosis; deliver a poor ROI

If you, or your colleagues or senior leaders, feel tempted to skip the diagnostic phase, then you’re in company. The temptation to jump straight in is something that affects many organisations that commission leadership development programmes. This temptation increases when there’s a pre-packaged programme on the table. The promise of a quick fix, and a programme with lots of bells and whistles, can be too much to resist.

Skipping over the diagnostic phase and choosing an ‘off-the-shelf’ programme will not meet the needs of the organisation. And if the programme doesn’t meet the organisation’s needs, then nothing will change. That means the time spent on the programme itself proves fruitless which increases frustration, especially when the invoice arrives.

This is a challenge for internal L&D personnel. Attempting to appease the ‘get on with it’ attitude by asking for more time initially is a difficult circle to square. This fuels the fire of wanting to skip past the diagnosis and get to the development work. And while it might feel productive to charge ahead with development, it’s a false economy in the long term.

Trust, resistance and a plan: the value of a diagnosis

The value of a thorough diagnostic phase cannot be overstated. Without it, the time, money and effort spent on any programme is wasted. No matter how good they are, if the tools don’t match up with what needs to be fixed then it will remain broken.

And it doesn’t help when those on the inside of the organisation know what needs to be addressed. Hostility, derision, even disbelief, rise to the surface at the mention of having someone else come into the business and start interfering. Sound familiar? Being on the inside is precisely the reason why organisations need to permit an external party to diagnose what the problem is.

Observing the organisation gives the external provider a greater understanding of staff and leaders’ experiences. A diagnosis needs to be carried out by someone who is experienced and skilled in coaching. This is even more important if there is resistance to the diagnostic phase; digging for clues, asking uncomfortable questions and witnessing how things work reveals much more than what people say. It demonstrates in practice what really needs attention, rather than what those on the inside think needs work.

A diagnostic phase allows the provider to lay out their findings at the beginning. The provider can play back what they’ve heard and discovered. Open discussions about the programme’s scope can then happen up front, rather than it becoming clear halfway through the programme that the agenda is different to what was anticipated. These conversations are not always comfortable. They aren’t always what the client wants to hear. They are necessary foundation work, that secure the long-term success of the programme.

How to determine if a programme is fit for purpose

You can’t determine whether a programme is fit for purpose if you haven’t first carried out a diagnostic process. The diagnosis will reveal what needs attention, so the programme can be tailored to that exactly. Not only does this give the provider confidence in what they deliver, it reassures the organisation that the people they have commissioned to do the work are thorough, committed and serious about facilitating a programme that results in genuine change and improvements. Designing a programme without a diagnosis risks the programme being unfit for purpose – and wastes time and money in the long run.

The benefits of working with an external provider

Someone external to the organisation is separated from the everyday politics, and lacks the blinkers that come with being in a situation day after day. The fact that they are not a part of the business means that staff and leadership can be more honest with them, giving the provider even greater clarity and insight.

This is particularly useful when it comes to the senior team. Where the motivation to undertake development work is to remedy a problem, rather than developing future talent, it’s often the leadership that is a part of the problem. Unproductive situations tend to persist because there’s difficulty in breaking it to the senior team or achieving their buy-in to change.

Of course, a provider can’t make an individual or an organisation change its behaviours. Adult learning principles underline the fact that the individual needs to feel genuinely motivated to do so. Yet the advantage of working with an outsider is that it’s easier for them to have the difficult conversation with the senior team to prompt that motivation, because they have nothing to lose. Internal L&D personnel don’t always have the luxury of being able to challenge the leadership, without fear of repercussions.

Diagnoses start with outcomes

While outcomes are an end product, they form a crucial part of the diagnostic process. In Farscape’s position, we work with organisations that have had mixed experiences with leadership development. And when leadership development is perceived to have failed, it’s usually to do with outcomes, or lack thereof. Without a diagnostic process, it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what the desired outcomes are.

When organisations recognise that they need to undertake development work, outcomes are often vague and viewed almost as an afterthought. The sentiment runs along the lines of ‘make such and such better’ or ‘improve XYZ’. Defining an outcome means defining what the situation will look like when things are ‘better’ or ‘improved’. Defining outcomes at the beginning creates a finish line that the provider can then start to plot a path towards. This gives the programme, and indeed the organisation, a much greater chance of success.

Examples of questions that the provider needs to ask at the outset are:

  • How will you know if the programme has been a success?
  • What evidence will you look for?
  • Will the evidence be qualitative or quantitative?

Encouraging the organisation to think about how they will articulate when things are ‘better’, and by asking them to imagine how that might look, feel and sound, involves them in the process of development. And, going back to the adult learning principles, people that feel involved with the learning process, and motivated to make changes, are much more likely to take on board the learning that results in a long-term change.

An investment of time, not an incurred cost

Diagnostic processes take time. There’s no getting away from that. The perception that bypassing the diagnostic phase saves time is misguided; if you don’t invest the time in a diagnostic phase up front, then whatever perceived value you claw back by skipping it is eradicated during the development phase itself. And while there is more than one reason why leadership development goes wrong, failure to carry out a thorough diagnostic process is a significant factor. If organisations don’t give themselves the best chance then a provider will struggle as well.

If you’re thinking about leadership development and are struggling to convince the rest of the organisation that a diagnosis is necessary, give us a call. We’ve plenty of experience in objection-handling and can illuminate what the alternative looks like. Because diving straight into a programme and expecting great things is not a pretty picture, and not one that many organisations would want to spend money on if they could see it in

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