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The new face of leadership development

20 Aug 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

In the wake of Covid-19, quirkier military bootcamp-type offerings could be permanently ditched – in favour of an urgent focus on genuine behavioural change

“The need for a refresh in leadership development has been around since before Covid hit.” So says Gervase Bushe, professor of leadership and organisation development at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, adding: “There is still a great focus on this idea of leaders knowing the answer and showing the way, which doesn’t work in a world where nobody knows the answer – and anyone who thinks they do is dangerous.”

For Bushe, then, the traditional model of leadership development already being called into question long before coronavirus – typically seeing leaders spend a few months or years learning the technicalities of running a business, largely through classroom-based courses – won’t necessarily work in an increasingly VUCA world. Process and procedural areas such as marketing, sales, negotiation techniques, business continuity planning and disaster recovery are still important to master. But ever more crucial are those behavioural elements, or soft skills, the crisis has particularly brought to the fore – qualities arguably much harder to teach.

“Leaders are asking me to help them with practical tools, but they know a lot of the traits needed going forward require behavioural changes, and they don’t happen overnight,” says Emma Dechoux, leadership consultant and coach at Inspired Learning. “It’s about finding a balance between giving them the practical tools they are crying out for now and the behavioural development that we need to see in the long term.” 

According to the founder of Muru Leadership, Rob Cross, leadership development has been woefully lacking on this front for a long time. “People are looking for a different type of development,” he says. “Leaders might learn how to be ‘good leaders’ but when a crisis hits they crumble because they don’t have a strong enough sense of identity and character. Leadership development just doesn’t get into the existential drivers of human behaviour, such as a sense of identity, mortality and survival.”

So how precisely should organisations change their approach to ensure the right sorts of behaviours? Do the traditional MBAs and other business school-provided programmes still have an important role in the mix? Or – given post-Covid budget cuts and, just as crucially, the need for more on-the-job learning that can be immediately applied – will organisations increasingly take things more in-house? And where does this all leave the more quirky offerings springing up over recent years designed to develop leaders’ dealing-with-the-unexpected muscles? 

Certainly there are plenty of experiential options available – or there were before Covid struck. Take the Smith School of Business in Canada, where MBA students are put through a military bootcamp-style experience, involving challenges such as driving a Humvee blindfolded and planning a covert operation. Or ESMT Berlin, which has been working with Exit VR to create custom virtual reality escape room games for MBA students.

But for professor Connson Locke, programme director, executive global MSc management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), slightly whacky offerings – such as putting leaders into a Bear Grylls-esque survival situation or an SAS: Who Dares Wins experience – ultimately suffer from those issues associated with other forms of offsite development. Learning is often not translated back into the work environment, she warns: “The reason that’s not going to work is the way the human mind works. You can give leaders a lot of tools and they may intellectually understand how to use them, but once they return to the office they go back to old habits. You need to build in self awareness.”

Which isn’t to say all offsite development will be ineffective. And indeed for Locke, the Covid crisis doesn’t mean the world of leadership development is going to radically change, but rather improve on elements already in play. “I don’t think the whole curriculum needs to change. I think it’s about having enough space in the classroom to have those conversations so people can apply the material to what they are really concerned about,” she says.

“Covid is not going to change things as much as we think because we are creatures of habit. There may be online options added to the classroom experience, and certain aspects of leadership development will be emphasised in our teaching. But I don’t think we will see a complete overhaul of executive education.” 

One notable exception, which Locke alludes to, might be much more online delivery going forwards, although again this builds on a trend already in motion. Much leadership development – whether business school or consultant-provided, or in-house – has of course gone the way of many business activities during lockdown, with such clear benefits from an accessibility and D&I perspective that an element of virtual delivery is more than worth hanging on to, says Dechoux. “Learning right now is more accessible than it has ever been because there are a lot of providers switching to virtual options,” she says.

“But we need to carry that on to make it affordable so that if a business isn’t investing in someone’s development, they can do it themselves. That will open the door to a wider demographic of leaders.” 

Locke confirms that when LSE’s one-week executive programmes were moved online they attracted a “completely different demographic and group of people”. She doesn’t think this will entirely replace campus-based learning in the long term, but she agrees that adding online elements to courses will appeal to a greater range of leaders with a wide range of commitments at home, and those who may not otherwise have the opportunity because of companies no longer “wanting to spend as much money on development”. 

“Virtual learning is cheaper than face to face and we know it can be as effective and that you can build a network virtually,” agrees Annette Andrews, director and founder of Acaria Coaching and Consulting and former chief people officer at Lloyd’s of London. For her, “the days of getting a group of people together in a sweaty classroom or a hotel meeting room for a week are gone”, with those programmes that had already added an online element now at a distinct advantage. 

“I don’t think it would be a bad thing if [traditional classroom MBAs] died; that’s quite an old-fashioned way of doing things and ideally it would be a bit of both,” she says. “I know some business schools, Henley for example, have managed to move their programmes completely online during lockdown, and it makes you wonder: why would you go back? You can record them and play them back, and most universities are offering this now. It means you can appeal to the talent of the future, who are already used to living and working that way.”

Of course there will still be a cost attached even where accessing predominantly online content produced by a business school or other provider. Which begs the question whether reduced budgets post Covid will lead some to take more leadership development in-house – which would certainly speak to the potential need for leaders to develop better habits while in precisely those environments they’ll need them for.

Andrews suspects possibly not, however, given this could be something of a false economy. She anticipates that the mix of business school-provided and in-house programmes typically making up most organisations’ leadership development offerings pre-Covid will remain largely intact: “That combination of internal in-house development and business school partnerships across sectors and organisations is a great way of doing it because you get cross pollination of leaders. Whereas when you do it all in-house you get ‘group think’ – when you really want to shake things up and challenge people a bit.”

The trend already in motion before Covid for business schools to work with organisations on more bespoke, onsite offerings, could accelerate going forwards, however, feels Locke. “It is possible that if universities offered something a bit more blended and businesses didn’t have to pay travel expenses because it was delivered in-house, that might make those options more attractive and accessible,” she says. 

Perhaps more important to focus on than the delivery mechanism involved, however, is the content of programmes and ensuring this is suitably values and behaviours focused. “Organisations need to think about their leadership framework – which all good organisations should have – rethink what they need for the future, and start to build their content around that,” advises Andrews.

“If you are doing a leadership development programme that doesn’t touch on values, individual relationships, mentorship and developing the people around you, you’re stuck in a 1900s way of thinking, specifically the 1950s, 60s and 70s,” says James Berry, programme director for the (newly developed) online MBA at UCL. Berry adds that more programmes need to incorporate scenario planning to prepare companies for the ‘what ifs’. “We call these kind of things an act of God or nature; they are a discontinuity and they aren’t the normal course of business. Building plans for those things is something I do think programmes will be incorporating,” he says. “That kind of contingency planning could be a robust area for leadership development programmes to explore. You can’t prepare for every eventuality but you can build resilience and capability.” 

Overburdening leaders with tools rather than developing them on a much more personal level has been part of the problem in the past, says Cross. “A lot of leadership development programmes don’t give enough depth,” he says. “And so what you’re left with is people coming out with skills and tools but without the courage and ambition, or sense of identity and purpose, to use them. Hopefully the crisis will see those traditional models transformed.” 

Locke emphasises the importance of greater focus on leaders’ ability to communicate and connect with employees: “That’s always been important, but when things are stable you can get away with not being so good at them. But when things are uncertain and there is a lot of upheaval then that becomes one of the most important skills.

“When it comes to people management, we have already been talking about employee wellbeing but it just becomes more important now. We teach a lot about decision-making, but now we need to focus on rapid decision-making under crisis – that now has to be centre stage. And of course, we have always talked about strategic planning, but not many planned for a pandemic...the change will be foreseeing risk and how to deal with it.”

The issue, says Bushe, is that a lot of thinking on what constitutes leadership fit for an age of rapid change and uncertainty is still in its nascent stages – and so might not trickle down into the ‘how,’ and crucially the content, of leadership development programmes for some time. He cites the shift occurring in leadership models from horizontal to vertical development, with horizontal involving learning skills and methods and the vertical model grounded in developing the socio-emotional competence of the leader and changing how they think and behave.

Bushe explains that the vertical model splits adults into two categories: conventional and postconventional. He says most adults don’t move past conventional and therefore only define themselves in terms of role and accomplishments. “The more complex the world is, the more you need leaders at these later stages of postconventional [vertical] development... we are moving into this new world that is far more complex and calls on postconventional,” explains Bushe. “But no one knows much about how you help people make that developmental move.

“The Center for Creative Leadership has made a move to provide programmes to help people up the ladder [on that], but they aren’t waving the flag saying they have done it yet.” 

Again, this doesn’t mean the field hasn’t already started moving in the right direction in some circles though. Organisations already investing in developing the right mindsets among leaders and budding leaders will have reaped the rewards during the pandemic, says Berry. As such, he sounds an optimistic note around the status and quality of executive education as the economy recovers from the pandemic, predicting there will actually be “higher demand” for programmes as lockdown lifts. But he agrees with Bushe that precisely what this looks like is still something of a question mark. 

What organisations must do now  – as with so many other areas – is keep lessons learned during the Covid crisis firmly in mind when it comes to developing the leader of tomorrow. And – again as with other areas of HR – seize this perhaps golden opportunity of traditional thinking being disrupted and called into question, to reshape things for the better. 

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