Leadership development should be a company’s core competency

Leadership development, or any form of training for that matter, is too important to leave to just the learning and development (L&D) professionals. That’s not to say you should get rid of all your L&D experts. On the contrary, it provides an opportunity for L&D (and HR) to get on the board’s agenda.

Take leadership development. How often have you seen the ‘happy sheets’ (ie, course evaluations) completed in a rush at the end of a two- or three-day programme? The participants loved the trainer, loved the programme, but in the cold reality of business life, does anything change in the workplace? Even if someone is enthused and motivated to put their new-found learning into practice, this is often quashed by the management chain’s lack of understanding about the learning process. What is more important is whether it is the right training for the business.

If leadership development is to be truly aligned to the needs of the business, it should be ‘owned’ by the board (and by ‘board’, I mean the most senior management leading a business). For starters, this means the board should review leadership development programmes. They would expect to review a business plan for other significant investments, and there is nothing more significant than the leadership of the business.

The board should also actively participate in summary versions of the training so they can experience and reinforce the learning messages. Last, but certainly not least, they should review metrics indicating the success (or otherwise) of their investment. But please, don’t waste time on meaningless metrics such as the number of training days delivered. It’s not what you do, but the value you add that matters.

A business is successful through selling the output of its talent, so it should put serious focus on it. Talent development is so important that it could, if done poorly, seriously affect the business in the long term. If the board does not have a talent strategy to ensure the right leaders, current and future, it becomes a game of chance. A responsible board should never allow this to happen. It reviews the financial account, so the same should happen with the ‘talent account’.

If the board takes an active interest, maybe HR will be more motivated to take a joined-up view of talent. So many HR organisations treat the L&D team and recruitment separately. Yet they are both part of the talent acquisition process – one buys it, the other grows it. Taking the ‘Chelsea model’ of buying all your talent is not sustainable unless your chief executive is a Russian billionaire.

Active board involvement in defining the leadership competencies/profiles to drive business success – and to ensure the right talent acquisition process exists – creates a ‘leadership brand’ for the business. This in turn helps attract and retain great leaders, as well as driving cultural change. In other words, it becomes a self-sustaining, virtuous circle. A word of caution, though: whenever the business strategy changes, make sure the board reviews the leadership approach.

Leadership development, therefore, should become part of the organisation’s DNA. For example, if your ‘go to market’ strategy includes partners, invite them to participate. Maybe go as far as Dave Ulrich suggests in his latest book The HR Value Proposition, and invite customers to participate. How about corporate social responsibility? If this is important within your company, why not involve managers in, for example, running programmes for sixth formers, the management teams of failing schools, or even small business owners in the local community? Ultimately, developing leadership skills needs to become a core competency of the business, not just an HR (or worse, the ‘training department’) initiative.

Nick Foster is vice-president of HR, UK, Ireland and South Africa, Oracle

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