Tracking the leadership transition

Professor Herminia Ibarra outlines the basic principles for deciding who  grows and who goes during a leadership development programme

The return on investment for most leadership development programmes is rarely on a par with the expectations of sponsors and participants.

This conundrum raises the perennial question: can leadership be learned? Of course, there will always be people on both ends of the leadership curve – those who will never learn to lead and those who have always led naturally. But most managers have some leadership aptitudes and some deficiencies and, therefore, need help making what I call the ‘leadership transition’. Their success in navigating this important passage hinges on a few simple principles outlined below.

Leadership transition

The first step in improving leadership development policies and practices is to recognise that people develop through transitions in their professional and personal lives.

A transition is a move into a fundamentally different role, one in which the strengths and priorities that made us successful in the past, become the weaknesses that derail us in the future. Letting go of well-rehearsed and highly rewarded reflexes can be a terrifying proposition and one that touches at the very heart of our identities.

The leadership transition, therefore, can provoke deep self-questioning: Do I have what it takes? Is it worth it?

To help managers develop to their full leadership potential, we must help them address these important questions, and accept that part of the learning they must undergo is personal.

Learning to lead

One of the biggest challenges aspiring leaders face is developing a style that fits them as well as the unique demands of their organisations. These ‘stylistic’ issues are intimately tied to how managers define themselves as professionals.

These key challenges are:

  • Learning to sell, and not just produce, good ideas
  • Working through informal networks
  • Communicating clear and simple messages that have emotional impact
  • Delegating more appropriately
  • Improving social skills, such as empathy, listening and coaching.

When we consider this learning system’s three major components – motivation, practice, and feedback – we see that the implications for leadership education are substantial. In essence, what takes place before and after a leadership development scheme is as important, if not moreso, than what happens during the programme.

Managing take-off

We often cite that what motivates a successful person to change is pain, ie, negative feedback or a performance gap. While this is true, the transitions approach suggests timing is a critical, but neglected element of motivation.

Training and development that takes place just before, or at the time of, a critical transition is more likely to motivate personal change than the same experience offered at the wrong time, because people know they’ll need to use their training on their return.

Despite this, few programmes explicitly consider the most critical factor for maintaining motivation – managing re-entry. The same applies to practice and feedback.

The methodology of today’s popular leadership development programmes allow some practice and feedback and coaching modules help participants make sense of 360-degree assessments.

But, these only skim the surface. Most promising individuals sent to expensive and high-quality executive education schemes return to work only to find that their organisations have not changed. Old routines quickly squash their firm resolutions and good ideas. Deprived of ongoing feedback as well the ability to put into practice what they have learned, managers leave for greener pastures.

It is time to consider leadership training programmes founded on the core principles of motivation, practice and feedback. With greater attention to managing re-entry, organisations will better prepare promising managers for the leadership transition and notice a dramatically better return on their training investment.

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