The question leadership facilitators fear most, and why
Is it possible that developing high potentials via accelerated leadership programs could lead to an exodus of that talent? And what does this have to do with the question that most leadership facilitators fear most?
BY ALISTAIR GORDON
The workshop is going well. The participants are soaking up and practising a range of skills: active listening, advanced question technique, empathetic appreciative enquiry. These are, of course, foundation skills for effective leaders, which enable them to engage, motivate and drive performance from their team members. The latest real play simulation is being debriefed, and the benefits of a coaching style of conversation to make workplace discussions meaningful and actionable is becoming clear to the participants.
Then suddenly, a participant asks the question that immediately diverts all attention. The question is seriously loaded ... and every participant can’t wait to hear the facilitator’s answer!
The question? ‘Is my manager going on this course?’
The premise that prompts it is rarely spoken. The participant is implying, and most other participants are nodding their heads in agreement, that all of the skills that are currently being discussed and practised are rarely if ever modelled by their managers, or even senior leaders.
Middle and senior management leadership programs tend to focus on ‘senior leadership business’ - executing strategy, driving innovation, building competitive advantage and focusing on the customer - rather than working on critical soft skills. Every HR professional knows that undertaking these leadership activities is rarely successful unless effective conversational skills are already in place.
The invisible problem of senior managers and ‘soft skills’
The serious concern in training front line leaders in skills that their managers don’t have is that this training can have unintended consequences. Having been made aware of what effective leadership skills look like, and having seen the power of them being applied, some of the best talent in the organisation can conclude that they wouldn’t learn anything new from, or be developed by, their current manager, so seek employment elsewhere.
A kneejerk reaction to this news can be the cancelling of front line leadership programs. But a range of measures can be undertaken that simultaneously builds the skills of the managers and front line participants to ensure senior leaders consistently exhibit the right behaviours. It may take some effort to talk the CEO around but the success stats are convincing.
Persuading senior leaders to revisit and develop their basic skills
To bring about change, the new skill and behaviour training programs offered to lower levels are either missed or ignored by the senior leadership team. And the lack of coaching capability among middle and senior leaders is widespread. There is often a misalignment between how executives imagine they are leading versus the general perception.
In two recent networking lunches, representatives from fifteen different organisations broadly agreed that one of the greatest challenges faced in organisational development is persuading middle managers and more senior leaders that they need to revisit and develop their foundation leadership skills.
Various reasons for senior leader reticence were offered:
Insisting on attendance for these programs generally doesn’t work.
There are, however, several narratives we have seen work, each of which being completely dependent on the circumstances and mindset of the executives needing to be influenced:
From our experience, we know that when these discussions are facilitated by an objective, external consultant, the participants are more likely to accept the examples provided to the group from a broader benchmark and having their behaviours told like it is.
But none of these options are likely to be effective unless the senior leaders – as a group or, more importantly, individually – commit to modelling the right leadership behaviours, and understand why it is in their personal interest, not just the organisational interest, to do so.
To get a personal briefing on how the HFL design team shape programs that intimately involve participants managers through the program, and indeed help those managers pick up key skills, please contact us at or call one of our offices.