Failing to talk business

Line managers and development professionals are frighteningly at odds over
what makes a good business leader, according to new research. Catherine Bailey
and Martin Clarke report

Leadership development is a big-ticket item in anybody’s book. Not
surprising, perhaps, at a time when the need for futuristic vision, innovation
and change at all levels of a business seem vital for companies to survive.

As the need for these capabilities is understandably greatest at the top of
an organisation, it is usually high on the agenda of most HR development (HRD)
practitioners. It is high-profile work, but is it high impact? According to
recent research undertaken at Cranfield School of Management, 60 per cent of
managers described business leader development (BLD) in their organisation as
having a low impact on personal behaviour, and 54 per cent as having no impact
on business performance.

Unfortunately, Cranfield’s research suggests that HRD may be part of the
problem, but it also highlights how this can be dramatically reversed. In
simple terms, there is a choice, Either stick to the safe ‘best practice’
advice or take a risk and challenge some of HRD’s assumptions.

Startling findings

Cranfield’s two-year, two-phase study into innovations in BLD examined the
views of more than 400 UK and US line managers and HR professionals. The
startling picture that emerged revealed a high degree of disconnection between
the strategy, implementation, content of BLD and what managers see as business
need. As a result, much BLD is simply too fragmented and unfocused to make a
difference. When leadership is at such an organisational premium and there is
no shortage of development advice and expertise, what explains this alarming
finding? Cranfield found three clear reasons.

1. BLD value and processes are poorly understood at executive level

In Cranfield’s first survey, less than half (48 per cent) of respondents
believed their organisation to have a strategy for developing leaders, and few
of these could clearly articulate it.

Only 20 per cent could identify any sort of strategic driver for BLD
activity. For many, it was viewed as simply a response to tactical short-term
pressures or initiatives. Few appeared to understand the choice of development
activities. While this highlights the importance of the HRD professional’s role
in educating his executive colleagues about how to release the potential of the
organisation’s leadership cadre, Cranfield found that many HRD practitioners
did not always have a good grasp of the issues in business leader development.
In particular, they were often stymied by how to align the development of the
different managerial populations and the use of different methodologies with
business needs. The resultant ‘misalignment’ might well account for much of the
disconnection reported by line managers.

Even with a good grasp of the issues, trying to educate corporate colleagues
is hugely difficult and frustrating if they don’t possess the business
leadership capabilities necessary to take a strategic view in the first place.
In these ‘unfavourable’ circumstances, the HRD professionals who made the most
impact with BLD were those who put aside the mantra of ‘senior management
buy-in’ and were prepared to get political. They built support for their
initiatives from the bottom up, and were prepared to be covert about their
activities until they had proved the viability and value of the initiative.

2. Failure to discriminate between short- and long-term BLD

Most of the executives surveyed, felt BLD should be driven by short- or
medium-term business goals. Yet, 70 per cent believed their company’s stock of
futuristic thinkers was lacking. It is not difficult to see how basing BLD on
short-term/medium-term goals may well impoverish longer-term strategic thinking
and perpetuate a short-term perspective.

Equally understandable is the impact of this executive short-termism on an
HRD preference for development activities that deliver more immediate business
results such as in-house, on-the-job, project-based, action learning
‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches. Not surprisingly, the survey found a
predominant view among managers that HRD didn’t have a strategic contribution,
they simply provided a series of (apparently) disconnected development activities.

This view was exacerbated by the methods used to evaluate BLD. Managers did
not generally distinguish between evaluating individual or organisational
impact, or both, and whether they were focusing on immediate measures or
ultimate outcomes. This confusion might account for the low expectation of
evaluation activity and the real difficulty that managers had in relating
business benefits to the development of future-focused business leaders.

There were examples of organisations that had greater clarity. One high
street retailer, focusing on leadership development as a method of major
cultural alignment, appropriately used staff attitude surveys and a balanced
scorecard to track substantive movements in employee behaviour.

Another, giving preference to high- potential development for long
term-leadership capability and succession planning, usefully measured success
in terms of retention and job moves.

Those HRD individuals who were able to be more discriminating about long- and
short-term business development goals were careful to distinguish between the
needs of the business and different leadership development populations (see

One financial services organisation, recognising its business’s long-term
need to be more innovative and entrepreneurial in its strategy-making, for
example, focused on developing a small group of senior managers who would have
the capability to embrace high levels of ambiguity and curiosity.

These leaders would, in turn, use their organisational visibility to role
model these behaviours to others. These personal attributes were developed
through individually tailored development plans, not a standardised internal

Early signs suggest being selective about the group and development content
can lead to changed behaviour in the business. Of course, such differentiation
can often seem to cut across HR concerns for organisation-wide consistency and
inclusion, but failure to take a discriminating and targeted stance at best
only leads to diluted impact, at worst, wasted investment.

3. HR thinking at odds with senior managers

A third reason for disconnection and fragmentation of BLD emerged in
significant differences in thinking between HR and executive colleagues.
Staggeringly, only 48 per cent of HRD professionals saw a direct link between
executive development and business performance, for example, in contrast to 67
per cent of line managers. This alone would make the task difficult for
educating executive colleagues in the value of BLD.

A difference of perspective was also evident in preferences for internal
development activities. For example 94 per cent of the HRD respondents rated
internal business projects of high value, in comparison to only 67 per cent of
senior line managers, while only 42 per cent of HRD professionals viewed
external business school programmes of value, in contrast to 64 per cent of
senior line managers.

Does this suggest that line managers place greater value on external
developmental experiences than HRD? Is HRD driven more by concerns to reflect
in-vogue management development ‘best’ practice advice than by business needs?
At best, this kind of disconnection from the views of business leaders reduces
HRD’s ability to influence the BLD agenda. At worst, HR professionals risk
being seen as an increasingly irrelevant player in what really matters – the
strategic leadership of the business.

Neither are these findings isolated. Other research suggests line management
is often largely ambivalent or negative about the influence of management
development specialists in the organisation and their ability to take a
strategic overview. In the US, advice for executives trying to achieve greater
business alignment in their BLD includes placing line managers in HRD roles. Where
will this leave HRD professionals?


If HRD is to realise the business impact potential of BLD, it needs to
develop its capabilities as leaders of leadership development (see box). The
lessons from this research are clear; HRD must enhance its strategic
perspective of the business. In doing so it will be better placed to challenge
the short-term thinking of senior management colleagues and forge closer
alignment between BLD content and longer-term business needs. Alternatively, if
faced with intransigent top management myopia, it may well mean taking personal
risks to drive development without senior buy-in.

HRD professionals need to face the possibility that if they are unable to
respond to these challenges, then enlightened executives could take the lead.
Which way it will go has yet to be determined – the door is still open in many
organisations for HRD professionals to step in to make a real impact, but
already there are sounds of doors shutting.

One influential US research team suggests leadership development is too
important and strategic to be left to HR! According to Cranfield’s research,
what isn’t up for debate is the overwhelming need for businesses of tomorrow to
have futuristic, innovative and change-hungry leaders at every level who can
also meet the short-term delivery of business certainty.

Sooner, rather than later, it will no longer be an issue of whether
leadership development is the key to this strategic capability, but a
questionof who is leading the cause. You must decide.

Leadership ploys

A discriminating approach to
leadership development:

– Requires the will to make hard choices about those
development activities that deliver immediate pay back and those that build
sustainable strategic capability

– Means challenging short-term managerial thinking about
development – this needs resilience and clarity

– Requires you to deal with the conflicting demands of
nurturing an inclusive approach to leadership development and the need for
developing diverse and innovative thinking

– Requires clear communication of the rationale for your
approach to all management populations so they can see how their needs are
accommodated and what your role is in the process

Leading leadership development

– Examine your own approach to BLD.
To what extent are you influenced by HRD ‘best practice’ solutions at the
expense of alignment with business needs?

– Tune into longer-term business needs and harness your
professional drive for innovation and leading-edge methods in the service of
business strategy, not professional dogma

– Don’t collude with short-term management thinking, challenge
it, and learn to use politics constructively in the long-term interests of the
business (See ‘Smart Management, how to be a good corporate politician’
Training Magazine, March 2002).

– Build strategic as well as functional expertise. If you want
to influence those with influence, then you need to operate in the same arena.
This means building an ‘external’ leadership perspective; understanding
business positioning, the competitive landscape, having a view of your industry
and business innovations from outside yourindustry. An external perspective
helps you to understand your organisation’s strategic issues and therefore to
segment the needs of your BLD population more acutely. (Ideas on developing an
external perspective will feature in a later edition of Training Magazine)

– Become an ambassador for the value of this external
perspective in the development of your own business leaders

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