Make Your Leadership Development Relevant, Viral

Expose your leaders to new ideas and new models, then let them draw their own conclusions.

Developing your leaders to successfully negotiate the daily challenges of doing business has never been more critical and necessary or more difficult. Here are a few keys to enabling your leaders to embrace new solutions and propagate them throughout the workplace.

1.   Have an executive sponsor: All leadership development efforts are doomed from the start if they appear to be emerging solely from HR. At minimum their impact will be limited. It is essential to have an internal sponsor with clout behind your programs, ideally the CEO. If not the CEO, then one or more of the CEO’s direct reports. Once you have secured a sponsor, keep him or her fully engaged. Obtain the sponsor’s input and support for the design, development and delivery of your program. Contract with your sponsor often about what you are doing and how you are doing it.  Be sure to share the outputs and impact measures for your programs with the sponsor, which helps him or her advocate for your program company-wide.

2.   Focus on the now: What are the top issues, challenges and problems your company is facing right now? That’s where your leadership development efforts must focus. Your world likely is changing too fast to focus on three or five years from now. Keep the training relevant. To identify the most pressing current issues, involve your sponsor and other top leaders in the process. However, don’t rely just on senior leaders, dip down a level to interact with and engage those closer to the action today.

3.   Promote cross-functional dialogue: After you have identified a key issue, bring together a group of senior leaders and employees who are wrestling with that issue to spend a full day dialoguing and debating. Facilitate them to inform and teach each other. One key to making this work is to be careful in hand-picking the group of 10 to 30 executives who participate in such a session. Are the participants thought leaders? Are they wrestling right now with the issue at hand? Do they have something to contribute to the other participants? Involve your CEO and sponsor in the selection process regarding who will participate in the session.

4.   Describe, don’t prescribe: In all of your development efforts, expose your leaders to new ideas, new models, new resources — then let them draw their own conclusions. Describe principles and practices, but don’t prescribe answers. Let them work through for themselves how they will apply what they are learning to their department or business unit. One benefit of this approach: your leaders accept ownership and accountability. Leave the conclusions to them, and then hold them accountable.

5.   Make the learning viral: If your work environment is changing rapidly, you don’t have the luxury of being gradual about affecting the changes necessary to keep up. To accomplish rapid change, learning must become viral. Plant the right seeds with your key thought leaders and let them spread their thinking across the company, laterally as well as up and down the chain. Viral learning occurs only when your leaders have genuinely embraced what they have learned, which is why it is essential to keep the focus on the most current and relevant issues and why it is so important to avoid prescription and encourage genuine adoption.

6. Hold them accountable: Ask your leaders to identify what they are learning, how they are going to put their learning into practice, and what their specific goals and timeframes are regarding implementation. Discuss these conclusions with them, providing your feedback and consultation along the way. Then follow-up to hold them accountable to achieve the standards they have set for themselves.

These ideas are easier to say than to do. Leadership development is as much art as it is science. However, your leadership development goals will become much easier to achieve if you keep it relevant and practical, keep it viral, and keep it real.

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Louis Carter
Louis Carter founded Best Practice Institute in 2001 after completing one of the world's first studies on high impact leadership development with Warren Bennis. Since then, BPI has become one of the top associations for leadership and human resources development in the world. He has written 10 books on best practices and organizational leadership including Change Champions, which has been translated into 8 languages and the Best Practice book series published by Jossey Bass/John Wiley and Sons including Best Practices in Leadership Development and Organization Change. He is a highly regarded authority on learning, talent, leadership development and change.