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Do You Wait to Offer Leadership Training to People in Leadership Positions?

I was made aware of this article older article thanks to the Offbeat Newsletter this weekend, and it’s a great look at something that doesn’t make sense about how we train our leaders. It’s something I’ve seen over and over myself, and while it’s bothered me a bit, I hadn’t really given nearly as much thought as Alastair Steward did:

Why It’s Time to Stop Developing Leaders

Alastair talks about many things, including how his company approaches leadership training versus how we’ve always done it. The two that struck a chord with me revolve around who we offer that level of training to, and how we do it.

In the first case, most organizations I’ve seen only offer some leadership or management training after someone becomes a manager. This is wrong. This is gatekeeping for no reason. There are people on your teams right now who are not managers, but would like to be, and you’re doing nothing to prepare them for that. Someone gets promoted and then you start them on a training program on how to be a manager. That doesn’t make sense. What are they supposed to do on day one with the team that now reports to them?

There are also people on your team with fantastic leadership qualities who might not want to be a manager, or where there’s no opportunity to become a manager. Why wouldn’t we want to support them in becoming better leaders even if their title doesn’t immediately make us think they are one?

Side note – some of the best “leaders” I’ve ever seen were not managers. They were people you could count on to take the lead and get things done. Some of them later got recognized and promoted into our more traditional leadership job titles, but they’ve been leaders far longer. Some of them didn’t want the title, they enjoyed the work they were doing.

Wouldn’t it be great if we invested in helping all of our people be better at taking the lead and getting things done?

The second issue is what we teach them. This is the area where Alastair has the most to say:

A heavy focus on upskilling only managers is one major issue with conventional leadership development. The statistics above illustrate the other: Turn-key, context-free training doesn’t work.

Most leadership development is optimized for ease of delivery (via a course or a conference) versus impact. If leadership development exists as a line item in a budget, it’s easier to check a box and say “Done” than it is to provide someone with a series of messier, context-laden experiences (and the support to learn from them) that might actually develop their capabilities.

He’s right, of course. Let me give you one example. Often the company provides a “new manager” training course. As I mentioned before, wouldn’t it be great if they offered it to anyone who had an interest in developing into a good manager? But, the course is actually just the nuts and bolts. How to fill out a performance evaluation, what the formal process for performance improvement plans is, the company policies on feedback, and how often they should meet with their direct reports, maybe even a little bit on budgeting and reporting.

In other words, there’s nothing there that a non-manager would benefit from anyway, and we’re calling it Leadership Training. We’re training our managers on how to be a cog in the same machine that we’ve always had and then blaming them when the people who report to them are disengaged or leave because being a cog doesn’t work anymore. That is not the job most people aspire to, they want to be led by people who are capable of adjusting to the fast pace of change with a clear vision and strategy for getting things done on the face of it. They want to be part of the solution to the challenges that business faces in 2023, and they want to take the lead when they can without waiting for permission from a boss before they act.

That kind of work only comes when you have real leaders, not leaders in name only, throughout the organization, and those skills don’t get sharpened in webinars and courses. They get sharpened because we are trusted enough to be in the fire.

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