Is leadership training a waste of time?

Employee experience expert Ben Whitter shares tips, insights in latest book

Is leadership training a waste of time?

Has your company poured sizeable amounts into developing leaders?

According to Ben Whitter – who has advised the likes of Unilever and Ford — that investment will see no return.

“Leadership [training] is a $300 billion waste of time,” he says.

The keynote speaker and author has had his work endorsed by King Charles III and has just released his third book, Employee Experience Strategy.

And he wants its tangible advice to drive individuals and those in leadership to exact change across entire organizations.

“Successful leaders do not win at the starting point, but at the turning point.”

Whitter has also worked with global giants such as L’Oreal and Sanofi to bring employee experience to the heart of their business.

He has 10 years of research behind him and has spoken at conferences in over 40 countries, putting him at the forefront of the EX movement since its inception, and has implemented his strategies into companies of all different sizes across the world.

Employee experience about evolution

One key area where corporations are looking for EX answers currently is the mobilizing of staff to form unions.

Big hitters such as Amazon have been at the eye of the storm and by their own admission that they want to be “Earth’s best employer”, Whitter thinks cocreation would help develop this.

“Amazon has started to realign around the employee and customer experience over recent years and I think they need to be careful in terms of maintaining that because they can only [achieve their goal] if they continue to work with their employees and deliver the type of organization that will show what really matters to the talent that they attract to that brand.”

“Employee experience is more evolution than revolution,” he says.

Whitter also notes that whilst some companies he has advised have had impressive employee experience projects, this often is department/leader centric and is not representative of the company, which is the rationale behind his ambition to create a cohesive employee experience.

“You can get the employee experience right at any level. We have taken these ideas to universities, hospitals, trusts, charities, medium-sized businesses, and wherever you take it, you get the results if you're doing it properly,” he says.

“If you are aligned with your objectives, your strategic goals, and everything else, then we can move the business in a way that works for everybody, and we can be clear with people in terms of the model.”

Whitter is clear that traditional HR processes are out of date and need to change. His vision is for them to evolve so multiple departments should be responsible for maintaining the employee experience.

“I think historically we've had the organization-centric company at the expense of employees, and I think that lens has shifted and now we're looking at the infrastructure, the practices, the processes and procedures, and we're looking back with fresh eyes [seeing] that they are not very human-centred.”

Extract from Employee Experience Strategy 

Leader capabilities (in relation to employee experience performance)

There is some project management fatigue I’ve noticed up and down the economy as projects roll out as fait accomplis rather than a genuine team effort, with the active participant you would expect that goes alongside. If you’ve read my earlier works or taken part in some of my earlier career experiences, you’ll know how seriously I apply this principle in practice.

I do so, not because I’m a genius or because I’m an exceptional leader; I do it because, quite frankly, it works better than anything else I’ve tried or attempted within my leadership style. It goes beyond mere cooperation and collaboration, which can often be superficial and hollow.

Co-creation genuinely drives better and more enjoyable results. I say the word enjoyable because so often is the case within companies, collaboration on projects is not enjoyable in the slightest. It’s difficult and painful for practitioners and leaders at times, and that really shouldn’t be the case in a properly formed team or project. The challenge as I’ve discussed is that people working in their specialisms do not see themselves as part of a wider team, and why should they? Certainly, their organizations are often guilty of not setting them up in that way.

Methods like agile are challenging this and bringing about some proper team experiences, yet I would like to see strong evidence of co-creation in any project regardless of the way the team or group is set up or the methodology they’re using.

What does this look like in practice? That’s the great thing – whatever we co-create it to be, as this capability muscle grows every time something needs to happen and involves people. I once took part in a group challenge that was assessed nationally and I was the designated leader of a group to focus on a very specific challenge. Very much in the style of The Apprentice where contestants have to work together but also take care to shine individually. It’s a delicate balance to get that right, but the only way I know how to lead is through co-creation – I am not the commander in chief of a group of people, nor did I ever want to be. I have my responsibilities, of course, but so too do people within the team.

I have my own ideas, but so too do members of the team. It’s about the best ideas that deliver the most impact, and the only way to get at these is through co-creation. So, that’s the way I led this group – from objectives to outcomes – and I’ll always remember the feedback; the assessor sharply observed that he didn’t know who the leader actually was. The co-creation style ensured we dominated the final presentations and assessment. We delivered the best ideas, the best team presentation and ultimately won the task with high praise from a leading CEO. We were poles apart from the other group, but their leader was very easy to identify.

There’s a time and a place for high visibility leadership, yet the real victories emerge when we focus on delivering a team experience that unlocks the creative energy and absolute best contribution from each contributor.

As I have written in my books to date, co-creation is a leadership superpower. Indeed, there is not much out there that will top this when it comes to management capabilities. It is an ever present in successful EX leadership practices. Co-creation is about sharing power and bringing the full potential of people to the table. Harnessing ideas, sharing leadership and co-producing outcomes is a way of leading in a more human-centric way.

Instead of dictating objectives, we co-create them instead. Instead of making plans in isolation, we create the plan together. Instead of telling people what to do, we ask them to co-create the right business-growing actions together. In this mode, leadership becomes more about facilitation and genuine collaboration than anything else. While at the same time, leaders increase and enhance all the major people metrics that matter, from engagement right through to innovation.

This extract from Employee Experience Strategy by Ben Whitter © 2023 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

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