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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Leadership development—Falling in love with business goals

Now and in the future we can create better leaders through leadership development, says Lindy MacLennan. She explains why effective investment in our leaders is crucial if they are to keep up with a changing world.

Leadership development and business goals have never even speed dated, let alone kissed. But a lightning bolt of wisdom has now thrown the two into an arranged marriage with a twist—leadership development needs a very close relationship with the business, rather than with business leaders.


I’ve never speed dated, but I have at times sat high in the lofty tower of leadership development. I remember us learning and development folk quivering with excitement as we created stunning leadership programmes we hoped would turn managers into super leaders. And they were great programmes—attendees loved them, got hyper involved, evaluated them highly then went back to their busy day jobs with great intentions.

And that’s as far as it got. They’d walk the talk on their Monday walkabouts, this “super leader” trait of visibility important to their success. And then nothing but business as usual, or the self-talk of “When I catch up/when I’m not so busy/once the boss leaves I’ll try those new concepts”. Result of the leadership programme equals a break away from the day-to-day grind; return on investment equals nil.


Why didn’t these managers metamorphose into great leaders post-programme? There are multiple reasons, and none of them their fault (read on, to where L&D got smart, and you’ll also understand where L&D went wrong).

The managers were probably frustrated and I was too—I was an internal leadership expert and could see that, in their day-today operations, these managers weren’t changing.

Then the global financial crisis hit, but it brought with it a silver lining. Leadership development budgets were slashed and the gravy train of leadership development came to a sharp halt. Finance people now made the decisions about what stayed and what stopped. The number crunchers started asking the hard questions: “How much will it cost?”, “What about their time away from their job?”, and the big one, “What are we getting back from our investment?”


I couldn’t easily answer these questions, but I knew they were important. We should be able to justify what we were proposing. That was the turning point, not just for me but for all folk involved in leadership development. We needed to make leadership development a more effective investment for the business.

Here are what I see as the game changers, the factors that have grown leadership development remarkably:

Business goals—top of the pops;
Buy-in of key people;
Clear accountability;
Better measures.


Every business writes strategies, goals, measures, targets or KPIs (key performance indicators). But it’s people who deliver them, successfully or unsuccessfully. And people perform better with effective managers or leaders at all levels.

You can draw a straight line from your end goal to the businesses leader and what they need to do to reach that goal. That means you need to focus on what skills the leader needs to make it happen well. There’s your leadership development learning objective.

If you can show your senior leaders or business owners exactly how your leadership learning ties directly into helping to achieve your business goals, of course they are going to be supportive. If you also keep reporting on how you’re tracking toward achieving that goal, they’re going to be even more willing to ensure the initiatives keep going. But you need to be on the ball—keeping abreast of business goals as things change and changing the learning to meet the goal.


I watched a programme about Queen Elizabeth turning 90 and realised she has a very deliberate strategy. It is that, if you want the monarchy to be relevant and popular, you need to be visible and present as much as possible. That’s why she’s always at functions and opening events even though she’s in her 10th decade. It’s a very effective strategy and one that leadership development would do well to follow.

You need to be pleasantly in the face of key people in your organisation—your chief executive, business owner, finance manager, key service managers—telling them what you’re doing and the great results you’re getting. Invite them along to any “leadership” event, get them speaking, integrate them within learning sessions. Use all your communication channels to tell the organisation what’s going on and what it means for them. There’s no point creating a good product if you’re not going to promote it well.


Line managers are pivotal if you want to grow managers below into better leaders. I learned this while interviewing line managers for some research study. I was amazed at how more insightful they were about what their managers had gained from leadership sessions. It was much more than the manager had realised about themselves.

Sadly these same line managers never had conversations with their managers about what areas they wanted them to work on during the sessions or their expectations when they came back—that was a missing part. They could see a lot in the outcome, but didn’t say a lot to add value!

The line manager, and not their individual managers, has the greatest accountability for making leadership development “work”. It’s their budget that is paying for the learning; they have to justify why they are investing in the person; they need to know what they and the business are going to get out of it. There’s still work to be done in this space, as people in these roles are very busy and their priorities aren’t always on leadership development. Let’s face it—everyone thinks they’re doing an okay leadership job until someone in higher authority tells them they’re not, and gives them examples and ideas of how they want them to perform. Again, it’s easier to focus if this information includes business goals that they’re not meeting.


Evaluation of leadership development has always been a teeth grinding experience. It’s usually tacked on at the end of planning rather than at the starting point. But by making business goals the driving force, you’ll find it easier to identify what you need to achieve and you’ll end up with less of those wafty learning objectives.

It’s always amazed me that our main method for learning evaluation is based on a model that was developed in 1959! And we’ve never been able to implement the higher levels of that process. To do so would cost more than the actual programme.

Undertaking a review, evaluation or return on investment doesn’t have to be complex, long winded or follow a standard process. Just choose three things you want to improve or grow, related to the business goals, create some measures to show that improvement and then continue measuring it. Keep it simple and you’re more likely to be able to sustain it.


So where do I see the future of leadership development? I see more targeted individual development of leaders:

  • • 
    More assessment of their skills up front;
  • • 
    More focus on their personality and suitability as a leader;
  • • 
    More one-on-one coaching, mentoring or both;
  • • 
    Greater accountability on their performance.

Artificial intelligence is going to change the world of work within a very short space of time. We can’t envisage how massive that will be, except to know it will be scary and “work” will be totally different to what it is now. Leadership development will need to evolve ahead of the changing workforce, changing job roles and changing outputs required to be successful.

I still believe that, now and in the future, we can create better leaders through leadership development. We need to be honest with them about their performance, clear about what they need to achieve for the business, committed to giving them the skills they need and ready to adapt our own skills by keeping up with a changing world.

LINDY MACLENNAN has worked in leadership development in multiple large organisations and has a Masters specialising in evaluation of leadership development programmes.

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