Pursuing leadership development for competitive advantage is a gamble. Here are three common traps - IMD Business School

Betting on leadership development: three false paths

Pursuing leadership development for competitive advantage is a gamble. Here are three common traps
6 min.
January 2014

Over the past couple of decades, companies have come to see leadership development as an organizational capability, not just a top-level succession necessity. More and more companies are expanding their view of talent to harness the leadership potential throughout their workforce. The reasoning is that by taking a systemic view of leadership development, companies can build a hard-to-replicate source of human resource-based competitive advantage.

Pursuing a leadership development strategy is based on the premise that through a judicious combination of programs and processes companies can produce more effective leaders. But this presupposes that companies understand how to build leaders, that they are able to hang on to the leaders they produce, and that the competencies they set out to develop are the ones they actually need 10 years down the road.

While there is no guaranteed recipe for successful leadership development, we know from experience that certain approaches often fail to deliver the expected results. Three familiar excesses stand out.

Overreliance on HR

Some companies choose to hand over responsibility for talent management to HR in order to free line managers to concentrate on business issues and client interaction. Clearly, HR can take a more objective and systemic view of talent supply and demand. It can assess the business-critical roles for the organization as a whole, the likely shortages or bottlenecks and the lead times to prepare replacements. It can also design career paths that will expose executives to the kinds of assignments and training that will round out their competencies.

The problem with letting HR run everything is that it tends to let line managers off the hook for developing people. For example, having established sophisticated talent management programs and processes, including centralized “career stewards” to watch over rising stars, Shell found that it has needed to redress the balance. Its head of leadership development, Paddy Coyne, commented: “There are many examples of leaders in Shell who personally develop their people, but over time it had become kind of optional. We are now shifting dramatically towards saying it is no longer optional. It’s part of your day job as a leader. It will be encouraged, it will be supported, it will be measured. Your track record in developing your people will be something that determines your own career progression.”i

Talent management is too important to leave to a single constituency. Line managers are close to their people and can detect their real strengths and areas for improvement, as well as what makes them tick. They play a vital role in both development and retention.

Overreliance on Experience

Variety of experience is widely viewed to be the richest form of leadership development. The most common way that companies prepare executives for leadership is to give them accelerated experience across different domains, by rotating them through a series of projects, functions, lines of business or geographies.

GE has long been a proponent of this approach. As a conglomerate, it can offer a range of experiences – with businesses from light bulbs to jet engines to medical scanners – that few companies can match. New postings are systematically used to test the mettle of aspiring leaders. But the practice of putting promising executives through short stints in multiple units was deemed to have swung too far, with some switching jobs every two years.ii The company decided to redress the balance, placing more emphasis on deeper customer relationships and industry expertise. GE now leaves promising leaders in place for longer in order to promote accountability and to let them experience a full business cycle.

The danger when companies whisk emerging leaders through multiple assignments is that people become experts at only one thing – starting new initiatives. They never have to live with the consequences of their decisions or get a chance to draw the necessary conclusions.iii In some companies, this problem is compounded by a tendency to transfer individuals from one assignment to the next without even a break in between – leaving no time for executives to review the choices made (or missed) and the key lessons generated from the completed assignment.

Overreliance on Training

Investments in executive education programs underline a corporate commitment to leadership development, as well as providing essential knowledge, skills and reflection time. A leadership program may only be one element in the developmental edifice, but it is a cornerstone for reflecting on the capabilities, mindsets and behaviors that have proved effective and those that need modifying.

Unfortunately, the behavioral impact of such investments sometimes falls short of expectations. It turns out that a supportive workplace environment is more important in ensuring the application of learning than the quality of the learning event.iv Take the example of the Swedish automaker Volvo.v To remedy a shortage of women in senior positions, the company initially set up a leadership program for female executives and assigned them older male executives as mentors. After several years, it became clear that the training was having limited impact on the retention or advancement of women leaders. In response, Volvo took several additional actions – but this time aimed at men. It introduced the “Walk the Talk” program for its senior executives, designed to change gender attitudes and to support women leaders.

Spread over 18 months and made up of 3-day modules, the 33-day program included “homework” assignments, such as interviewing women executives and experience exchange. Participants received coaching and were required to keep a personal journal to encourage self-reflection. They were also asked to choose a female mentor who was sharply different from them in background and personality. The program, supported by selection policy changes requiring candidates from both genders for leadership positions, had a strong positive effect on behavior and on women’s progress through the executive ranks.

Training is no panacea. The behavioral changes need to be applied and reinforced if the learning is to add value to the individuals and the organization.

More generally, leadership development is clearly a multifaceted effort, requiring balance between HR and line managers, between experience and reflection, and between training programs and support systems. Without a joined-up approach, companies will struggle to produce the distributed leadership they need going forward.

Shlomo Ben-Hur is Professor of Leadership, Talent Management and Corporate Learning at IMD, where he directs the Organizational Learning in Action (OLA) program. He also teaches on the following programs: Advanced Strategic Management (ASM), Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives (BPSE), and Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP)

Jean-Louis Barsoux is a senior research fellow at IMD.


i Paddy Coyne (VP Enterprise Learning and Leadership Development, Shell International BV) interviewed by Paul Hunter (2012) “Refreshing leadership development at Shell,” featured on IMD’s exclusive Corporate Learning Network “Wednesday Webcast” series, November 7. ii Ben-Hur, S., Jaworski, B., & Gray, D. (2012) “Re-imagining Crotonville: Epicenter of GE’s leadership culture”, IMD Case, IMD-3-2313, Lausanne, Switzerland. iii Bottger, P. C. & Barsoux, J.-L. (2009) “What new general managers must learn and forget in order to succeed,” Strategy & Leadership, 37(6): 25-32. iv Ben-Hur, S. (2013) “The business of corporate learning: Insights from practice” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). v Jonsen, K. & Maznevski, M. (2006) “Volvo walks the talk, IMD Case Study”, IMD-4-0284, Lausanne, Switzerland.


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