Why do leadership initiatives often fail?

We ask three HR and leadership experts about their views on the effectiveness of leadership programs

Why do leadership initiatives often fail?

Australia’s leadership programs lack adequate connection with the challenges faced in an economy still grappling with the end of the resources boom, according to a white paper released late last year.

The paper, Why the traditional approach to leadership development is failing Australia, by Ryan Dixon and Dr. Nora Koslowski, identified a systemic lack of alignment with the strategic intent of specific fields as a key deficiency in leadership development.

The Study of Australian Leadership posited that Australian businesses had a poor track record of turning “innovation inputs into outputs” and associated this with a paucity of leadership capabilities.

The study, from the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne hypothesised that Australian leaders don’t exhibit a willingness to seek out information in order to secure strategic advice, with more than six in 10 respondents reported ‘rarely or never’ seeking out such advice.

For Nicole Bunning, director, human resources, QUT, approaches to building leadership capability must align with the business’ strategic imperatives, be tailored to the context and have the executive team’s support.

“A critical mass of leaders participating builds common leadership language, behaviour and mindset. Being selective about who participates in the development contributes to quality impact and outcomes,” said Bunning.

“The design of development activity is important in responding to the complex and demanding international environments leaders work in and can include considerations such as micro and blended learning, 360 degree feedback, peer learning and coaching.

“Programs that use data to inform the design are more likely to be successful.”

Moreover, Michelle Gibbings, managing director, Change Meridian, said leaders are confronting increasingly complex work environments.

Consequently, leadership development must move beyond focusing on teaching new skills and behaviours.

“Effectiveness increases when it’s developmentally focused and individually targeted – equipping leaders with the self-understanding and insight to solve complex problems and lead others,” said Gibbings.

“This is most effectively done when it’s well targeted, highly customised, aligned with the organisation’s strategy and values, and championed by the executive team. When there’s a disconnect the desired results won’t materialise.  

“Success requires ongoing focus and deliberate activities to embed the new practices. Often expectations about the time and effort required to secure results are unrealistic.”

Meanwhile, for Tony Fiddes, Principal, leadership & learning, Nous Group, he prefers to concentrate on how to ensure initiatives succeed. Fiddes identfies the following:

  1. Understand and address emerging demands. Leadership expectations are changing; support leaders to cultivate different mindsets and build capacity to meet new challenges.
  2. Context is everything. Generic development doesn’t change behaviour. Leadership development should be deeply customised to create meaning.
  3. Build leadership systemically. Isolated programs touching few don’t provide the scale to drive change.
  4. Think leader as consumer. Modern leaders are autonomous learners, digitally-enabled, highly-networked and time poor. Development interventions tapping these traits unlock new possibilities.

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