By Dr. James Eyring, Chief Operating Officer, Organisation Solutions
Every year my family and I go on an annual ski trip. Like most proud (and slightly envious!) parents, I found that my oldest daughter surpassed me in ability this year. I take some solace in the fact that my own capabilities have improved significantly over the years. My skiing has caught up with some friends that could easily out-ski me a few years ago, even though they ski more frequently than me.
We all have improved over the years, but some of us are learning at a more accelerated pace. On a long lift to the top of the mountain, I realized that the factors that accelerated our skiing capabilities are the same ones that research shows are critical for leadership development. Unfortunately, many companies often miss these ingredients when they design their talent and leader development processes. Even more unfortunate is that most leaders aren’t aware of the ingredients and can actively avoid them when driving their own development. Like any recipe, if you are missing an ingredient, you often fail to achieve your desired results.
Improving in any sport requires insight into specific development needs. I asked a ski instructor for input and she identified a few key adjustments to my leg and body positioning that helped me on challenging slopes with large moguls. I am sure I have other areas to develop, but she helped me focus on specifics so I could improve without distracting me with too many areas to develop.
Insight is a key ingredient for leader development; the more specific the insight is, the faster the leader is likely to develop. If a leader only knows they need to develop a general area (e.g., improving executive presence and impact), they are not likely to develop that area quickly. But if they have greater insight into specific behaviours (e.g., specific influencing strategies, how to have impact in different situations, how to create impactful messages, etc.) that they need to develop, they can better focus their effort and improve quicker.
Insight alone is not enough to develop. My instructor helped me understand how to change my positioning, which was great in theory but difficult to put into practice. I had to intentionally practice new skills and learn from my mistakes. To break old habits, I had to build new muscle memory and automate multiple movements so I could do it holistically. This took time, focus and a willingness to fall!
Leaders need to practice new skills. This sometimes means experimenting with new behaviours or tactics (e.g., using a new influence strategy) or changing how they spend their time (e.g., moving away from operations to managing relationships). They must break habits and practice new, uncomfortable behaviours to get new outcomes. They must intentionally practice a skill until it becomes automated and easy to execute. Leaders need to have time to practice new skills, an environment that supports these changes and the resilience to make mistakes until their new skills improve.
A subtler ingredient of development is challenge. I can intentionally practice new skills on less challenging slopes. However, I can’t acquire the skills on these easier slopes. They are too forgiving and allow me to slip back into old habits easily. More difficult slopes demand better technique and so practicing on them results in faster development.
Leaders need challenge to acquire new skills. A new manager can often lead a small team well, but may struggle when managing people with different technical backgrounds, a team in a turnaround situation, or a globally diverse team, etc. Each challenge requires the leader to build slightly different skills. To develop, leaders need to put themselves in challenging situations that have some associated risk. Practicing new skills in a challenging environment can result in failure and set-backs but practicing new skills in safe environments rarely results in development leaps.
Support accelerates learning as well. My instructor gave me insight, taught me new skills and gave me feedback on how I was executing these skills. But support can come in other forms as well. A better skier can encourage me to try a new technique or bring me down a more difficult slope. A friend can give me feedback or recognize my progress. I could even watch videos or read a book to get new insights to ultimately improve my technique. Perhaps most importantly, a supporting and knowledgeable person can tell me when I have accomplished my goals or am ready to learn new techniques.
Leaders need a good support network to accelerate their development. They need experts or training to help them learn new strategies and practices for leadership. They need their manager or others to provide feedback when they practice new skills. They also need bosses to give them new challenges and to tell them when they have mastered a skill and are ready to grow new skills. They might develop without this support but will do so at a much slower pace.
Of course, there are many differences between acquiring a physical skill such as skiing and learning about good leadership. Leaders need to learn a much more varied set of capabilities, there are more barriers to learning and leaders can sometimes get by with an underdeveloped skill by having strong team support.
Perhaps most challenging is that some leaders don’t want to believe feedback that they receive. Some don’t’ want to repeatedly practice a new skill. Others don’t leverage their support networks or believe they can handle every new challenge with their existing skills. Research shows that these leaders develop more slowly than leaders that take advantage of the 4 key ingredients: Insight, Practice, Challenge and Support.
What you can do
If you are a leader, make sure you combine these ingredients to accelerate your learning. If you are in HR, make sure your development and talent programmes combine these ingredients to help leaders grow. And, if you are looking for a great holiday, go skiing and combine these ingredients to improve your technique!
Dr. James Eyring is the Chief Operating Officer of Organisation Solutions and leads the global consulting practice. In addition, he specialises in leadership and talent management and works with companies and executives to build capabilities they need to fuel future growth. As part of his role, he provides coaching to global and top regional leaders. Contact James