Why developing your senior team is difficult but vital, part 1: The challenges of developing a senior team

The senior team is at the top of the organisation. They are the cream of the crop in their field, with years of hands-on experience and know-how. Beyond their technical skills, they are the visionaries, the passionate individuals that keep driving the organisation forward. Unfortunately, this positive picture doesn’t always tell the whole story.

This is also where the biggest egos and the largest personalities are likely to be found.

Seniority and relative autonomy often give rise to the pursuit of individual agendas. The result is dysfunction at a senior level, lack of harmony and inefficiency. The biggest risk of not checking this behaviour is that it will filter downwards, resulting in senior leaders that aren’t respected and a state of distrust throughout the organisation that becomes the norm.

Senior leaders are on show to the rest of the organisation – why don’t they always display model behaviour? 

It’s tough at the top. Anyone that finds themselves at a senior level in business almost certainly didn’t arrive there via a walk in the park. Senior leaders have spent a long time doing what they do and behaving the way they do. It’s got them this far. Why should they change? Old habits are hard to break. Often, individuals are not even aware that their behaviour could be different.

Obstacles that inhibit senior team development

Ingrained habits are one reason that the development of the senior team can falter – a pervasive attitude of ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ That’s not the whole story, however. Knowledge, past experience of L&D, and time are also potential stumbling blocks to senior team development.

Many senior teams simply don’t know what L&D can achieve when used proactively to develop an organisation. Often, L&D is merely used as a reactive tool, a quick-fix to solve current problems. This lack of knowledge often contributes to the constraints and lack of resources available to those responsible for L&D.

Previous failures also impact the senior team’s attitude towards L&D. If over the years senior leaders have witnessed or taken part in initiatives which delivered little in the way of results, they may feel that any Learning and Development initiative won’t work. They might believe that there’s nothing out there that would be of use to them because ‘L&D doesn’t work’, or because they are at the top of their field and don’t think that they have anything else left to learn. Our article on how to avoid a poor ROI on L&D for senior leaders discusses this in greater depth.

The issue of time is critical also. Frequent demands on their calendar and attention mean that blocking out time to work on themselves can feel like too big an ask. So when L&D departments manage to deliver development work for senior leaders, they can be pressured into designing something quick which is easily delivered in the office. Programmes that are pulled together rapidly, or which are overly pared down, are unlikely to have any lasting impact and will not generate the lasting behavioural changes needed. Worse, this feeds into the narrative that L&D is ineffectual.

The first step in successfully developing senior teams is to identify what obstacles may impede progress and to deal with these first. Without addressing challenges, the development work is unlikely to overcome them.

Why is it so important to challenge senior leaders’ beliefs about L&D?

If senior leaders don’t see any value in L&D, or are resistant to participating themselves, there’s a very real impact on the effectiveness of L&D in the wider organisation. The belief that L&D doesn’t work increases as programmes repeatedly fail to deliver results, creating a vicious circle.

Furthermore, the culture of the business is at risk. If leaders do not first commit to development work that centres around themselves and their senior colleagues, if they don’t believe in or understand the ability of L&D to make a difference, and instead continue not to hold each other accountable, or allow egos to come before common goals, then there will be a negative impact on the rest of the business. This behaviour filters down and creates further lack of respect for leaders and colleagues.

HR and L&D personnel must lead the way in challenging this mindset. Communication and influencing skills come into play as they demonstrate why development work has to begin at the top. The second blog in this series, ‘The practicalities of developing a senior team’, looks at how to go about developing senior leaders to get the best results – not only for the individual team members but the entire organisation.

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