Challenge Your Leadership Development Rituals

It is time for leaders to take a fresh look at leadership development and create tomorrow’s development process based on today’s evidence.

Organizations spend more than $13 billion a year on leadership development and training. They invest in new, rising and established leaders. They go to leadership retreats, to business schools for professional development, spend time with the C-suite occupants, participate in 360-degree feedback, get coaches and learn multiple theories of leadership and management.

These activities can be powerful and transformational on a personal and career development level, bringing participants into leadership circles and helping them more deeply absorb organizational culture. Their participation also provides opportunities for organizations to preview employees’ potential, which shapes their future assignments.

Yet, most organizations do not have much, if any, evidence of the efficacy, efficiency or impact of these investments. We know they can be powerful. We value and often have experienced the intensity that signals someone is being groomed for leadership. Still, we don’t have a lot of proof to shape our redesign of leadership development and training.

Beyond Rituals

During the past year, I have been interviewing senior learning leaders about their corporate leadership development programs. One word keeps appearing in our discussions: rituals. Many leadership development programs are full of activities that have been done repeatedly over the years and have face-value validity and evoke powerful reactions from leadership candidates.

But CLOs often describe these as rituals rather than proven, evidence-based activities.

For example, one ritual might have well-known leadership experts and authors from top-tier business schools spend half a day with potential leaders, summarizing their latest books or research and telling powerful stories about their work with other corporations. This might cost an organization $10,000 to $50,000. It’s powerful, memorable, fun, stimulating – but it’s still a ritual.

Why a half day and not three days? Why bring the person in instead of showing a YouTube video of the same story?

The answers are often all about tradition, the expectations of the new leaders and the value of a common shared experience. Don’t misunderstand — these are good answers — but perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at leadership development from a design rather than ritual perspective. In fact, let’s challenge some of our most common practices in leadership development and see if there are any better alternatives.

Consider duration and delivery: Most leadership programs, particularly at the senior level, are structured as face-to-face events — usually over five to 10 days — often as immersion programs after someone is nominated as a high-potential employee or promoted to a senior level. From a design perspective, let’s consider alternative durations that are shorter or that stretch over two years. Play with hybrid and blended learning modes that decrease the time in the classroom and increase field-based learning.

Leverage technology: Imagine handing leadership candidates a tablet that would serve as their connection to key expertise and feedback — from coaches to video segments done by other leaders — via live video chat. Add a GPS link between the tablet and the talent system, and provide suggested conversations or lunches with key leadership exemplars as they travel to various corporate offices.

Promote expertise shifts and project-based learning: Imagine using the leadership faculty differently. Rather than using sages on the stage, bring them in to observe and facilitate real-time, project-based learning, where the leadership cadre tackles a major challenge facing the organization.

Create real-time redesign: At the end of the next leadership program, take two hours and ask the learners to redesign the program for the next batch of rising leaders. You will be amazed by what they change. They will not see their experience as a ritual; rather, they will give you fresh input about alternatives.

Random selection: Slip a few people into the leadership program who might have been chosen randomly. In other words, challenge your own assumptions about who might be the next leader. If the leadership training is really impactful, it might be interesting to see its effect on a counter-intuitive leader.

There is nothing wrong with rituals. They become part of the fabric of our shared stories as learning leaders. The key is to continually look at the design dimensions of our leadership development programs to create tomorrow’s rituals based on today’s evidence.

About the Author:

Elliott Masie is the chairman and CLO of The Masie Center’s Learning Consortium,

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer magazine

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