Are CEO scandals fuelled by failings in leadership learning?

People Management’s new columnist Michelle Parry-Slater reflects on why some of those in senior management continue to be partial to poor decision making, sometimes with devastating consequences

There have been a spate of high-profile controversies involving CEOs in recent years, from Peter Hebblethwaite's sackings at P&O to Elon Musk's tumultuous takeover at Twitter. These are two in a long line of CEOs not always behaving well. Why do they get it wrong?

Of course, they are fallible humans like we all are, but what pressures are they under that treating people with such little respect would ever be acceptable? What experiences are staff having that, when they become CEOs themselves, they act so badly? As a learning professional when I see these scandals, it begs the question: is leadership learning getting it all wrong?

Is it a scandal in itself that $50bn is spent globally on leadership development every year? For decades there have been hundreds of learning providers promoting leadership learning, with a huge variety of models and frameworks. From Robert K Greenleaf’s ideas on servant leadership in the seventies and Mary Gober’s motivational customer-focused approach in the noughties, to more recent gurus such as Simon Sinek telling leaders to eat last and David Marquet changing the face of hierarchies with ‘intent’. Their models are credible and can hold their own when applied in the right setting, with the right mindset and the right context. However, we still have poor leadership.

“Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing or are you just a shameless criminal?” asked MP Darren Jones to Hebblethwaite at a parliamentary select committee hearing. It seems a fair question to someone who sacked 800 members of staff in one go, openly and knowingly breaking the law. I wonder if it is also a fair question to L&D buyers who regularly pay a lot of money for leadership courses. Perhaps not breaking the law, but it does seem to go against a moral and ethical code of professionalism. Are L&D pulling their weight when it comes to doing the right thing by leadership development? Just as Hebblethwaite seemed to lack discernment and judgement in what would happen after his actions, do L&D professionals really ask enough questions of suppliers to determine what will happen after leadership learning? Do they understand what impact they need from the learning experience? Are L&Ders clear on what success will look like?

I think all too often the answer to these questions is no – we simply don’t dig deep enough before a solution is decided upon to truly understand the impact of our decisions. I am not always surprised in my work when clients cannot articulate both the real reasons for the learning requirement and the impact expectations have once learners are out the other side. The solution is not the work, it is only part of the story. 

Who is accountable for people development?

Yet, despite this lack of attention, I don’t lay the blame for poor leadership and the numerous scandals on L&Ders, nor their suppliers. The biggest scandal in business which isn’t being talked about is the fact that senior leadership teams and line managers pass over responsibility for people development to the L&D team in entirety, removing themselves from accountability.

People development does not ‘belong’ to L&D, it belongs to everyone, including managers. That there is not a culture in the business of KPIs for developing people as standard practice is the true scandal. As a manager, developing your people is a critical part of your role. If you don’t, you are agreeing at best to stand still, but more likely to move backwards in your business. 

Without all parties involved in learning, there is no foundation for the outcomes of learning to take hold. Learning is not about the ‘injection education’ of a course; any L&D needs to sit actively and purposefully within the company context and culture. Even the best leadership programme in the world needs embedding into organisational context.

The holistic nature of learning in organisations is so often ignored. Learning cannot happen ‘over there’ in isolation. Leadership development is only one element towards shifting a leadership culture. The whole team needs to buy into all learning interventions, to be curious and interested in outcomes, to understand what impact it will have, especially on behaviours and attitudes, and senior teams need to role model their own learning.

Importance of making L&D relatable

Yet holistic learning, or whole system learning, is not how most organisations approach L&D. Consequently, learning sits in pockets and doesn’t have any hope of a wider influence. It is in the moment and not relatable to the context of the workplace. 

To illustrate my point, I want to share a story about my mum. She worked in payroll her whole career, from leaving school at 15 to managing a very small team by retirement. She always described herself as a payroll clerk, even when her job title was payroll manager. She was humble and diligent with her work. Her company paid thousands to a large leadership training provider and sent all managers on the course.

I remember her calling to tell me she was going. She hadn’t been on many courses during her career – the odd day here and there, mostly to learn new software systems. So, a week-long course on leadership was a big deal. Yet she didn’t understand why she was on the programme. She didn’t see herself as a leader. She didn’t understand the content in relation to her one direct report. She didn’t really comprehend the content at all.

Afterwards I asked her what she’d learnt; she said there was a story about a starfish, then handed me ‘the badge’. All my mum took away from her learning experience was a story and a badge, plus she was concerned they spent a lot on her being there. The experience was pure ‘injection education’ and, just two weeks afterwards, that had worn off and she was very much back to being a humble payroll clerk. Not a leader. 

I share that story simply to illustrate that even with the best of intentions leadership learning doesn’t land when it is not context-rich nor relatable. Whatever the next best thing in leadership models, real life takes over and even the humblest of leaders simply go back to their day jobs.

When that day job is as the CEO, with the ripples of regularly making hundreds of decisions, steering their own moral compass with the weight of their employees’ mortgages on their back, while chasing their capitalist dreams or charitable goals, it is not surprising that when CEOs land ‘in the moment’, their decisions come from their gut and experience, not a pin badge nor a motivational story.

If L&Ders don’t want to be culpable in the next CEO scandal, we need to support leaders to make the right choices by embedding our learning offer firmly in their context by asking more of our suppliers.

Michelle Parry-Slater is author of The Learning and Development Handbook