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What High-Performing Organizations Do That Low-Performers Should Do

It’s as pervasive and inevitable as death, taxes and the common cold. If you’ve hung your hat in a few organizations over the years, some of them (if not most or all) could likely use stronger leadership, not only at the top but in the mid-level managerial ranks, too.

It doesn’t matter that you have the next great product, service or thing-a-ma-jig. If you don’t have strong leadership at the top and on down through the ranks, your organization’s success will be unlikely or short-lived. Let’s take a closer look …

I came across a fascinating article entitled Learning to Lead from the Best [Training magazine, May-June 2019] written by Michael Leimbach, Ph.D. In a very insightful summary of the magazine’s Annual Leadership Development Survey, Leimbach breaks down what high-performing organizations are doing with regard to leadership development that lesser-performing, or low-performing organizations, should be doing.

I won’t get into the survey methodology except to say the results were gleaned from responses provided by more than 700 Learning & Development professionals. Interestingly, more than 41% of all executives believe their current leadership development efforts were ineffective. That’s a whole lotta L&D dollars being spent with insufficient or no return.

In the interest of precious time, allow me to distill what I learned …

Learning Methods Used for Leadership Development

Results indicated the most-utilized approach to learning came from microlearning (quick, easy-to-absorb instructional units) and self-paced e-learning (learn at your convenience). More than 88% of all organizations – high-, medium- or low-performing — now take the self-paced approach. Microlearning also increased.[

All this suggests that more and more people are taking advantage of self-directed, electronically delivered leadership development education. But there’s a paradox here: While these were the most popular approaches, they ranked among the lowest in terms of effectiveness.

A Shift in Priority Skills

The specific skills organizations value the most when it comes to leadership development are: Coaching of others, effective communication, emotional intelligence (fancy term for not over-reacting or under-reacting emotionally in tense situations), and performance management (a formalized system of established goals and measurement against goals).

So, What Percentage of Budget Dollars Go Towards Leadership Development?

In the past year, there was a slight upward shift in organizations investing either 20-30% or 40-60% of their budget in leadership development. Among those steering 60-100% of their budgets towards leadership development, there was a slight downward trend.

OK Then, What Will I See as a Result of My Leadership Development Investment?

The study suggests that effective Leadership development investment, programs and results will yield six key positive outcomes for your organization:

  1. Strong leadership throughout will prove to be a competitive advantage (Sort of a no-brainer, IMHO.)
  2. Best-in-class leaders (If the recruiting sharks are circling your organization, you’re doing something right.)
  3. Attracting high-potential employees (Everybody wants to be on a winning team.)
  4. No leadership gaps (No weak links anywhere.)
  5. Sufficient resources (Having what it takes to attract, develop and promote leaders with great coaching, mentoring, learning tools, processes, performance incentives, etc.)
  6. Bench strength (Even the World Cup Champion U.S. Women’s soccer team had to rest its starters at some point in each match and rely on back-ups to keep the attack going.)

I Like It! What Skills Do I Need to Develop in My Organization to Get There?

In a head-to-head comparison of high-performing organizations and low-performing organizations (the medium-performing group yielded little insight), the study suggests developing the following specific skills will help you get to The Promised Land: Coaching and professional development of others, effective communication, emotional intelligence, strategy development and alignment, team leadership and performance management.

Identifying the Gaps

Far and away, organizations with buy-in, input and engagement of senior leaders are most likely to get leadership development right. Other ways to figure out what needs fixin’ include: Informal surveys of leaders throughout the organization, allowing leaders to list what they believe to be gaps, formal needs analyses, and assessment conducted by an independent third-party expert or vendor. High-performing organizations tend to take a more bottom-up approach while low-performers choose a more dictatorial, top-down approach and only those decisions come high atop the mountain.

How Do I Know the Best Approach(es) to Take?

High-performers are significantly more likely to utilize a wide variety of learning approaches. Let’s face it, we’re all different and we each have our own unique styles and preferences for how to learn. Low-performers tend to offer far fewer approaches.

Interestingly, many of these approaches don’t require a great investment of time or monetary resources; things like “stretch” assignments, action-learning projects, job rotation, and mentoring are highly effective, low-cost approaches. (So, why not incorporate these?)

Be “At One” with Your Organization …

One growing trend in leadership development is mindfulness training; basically being “present in the moment” and eminently tuned in to what’s going on right now. More than half of the high-performers place mindfulness as a priority and a key component of the organization’s culture.

Breaking in the New Guy (or Gal)

High-performers are far more likely to keep an eye on a newly hired leader in the early days to ensure he or she gets off on the right foot and can not only quickly and effectively assimilate but motivate the particular group they’re leading. This includes coaching and mentoring of the newly hired leader, advancing their leadership skills, monitoring their progress, helping them manage time and priorities, and assisting in the establishment of realistic goals and objectives.

Old Dogs Are Encouraged to Teach the Pups New Tricks … and Vice-Versa

High-performing organizations are more likely to value the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience among more tenured associates and create situations where legacy/institutional knowledge can be shared and transferred to younger, less-experienced associates. Conversely, the “old dogs” can simultaneously learn from the greener, more tech-savvy group. One hand feeds the other, right?

I’m Dizzy, Tell Me What All This Means and What I Should Be Doing …

So, the net-net of all this (and your organization’s Roadmap to Success when it comes to leadership development) is this:

  1. Get your senior executives involved in leadership development (input, support and engagement.)
  2. Take a bottom-up approach to identify the leadership skills that are needed.
  3. Be willing to “pass the torch” by creating two-way learning opportunities that pair tenured associates with up-and-coming newbies.
  4. Focus on structured, on-the-job learning.
  5. Incorporate and honor mindfulness as a key part of your culture.

Clearly great organizations are the result of having and developing high-performing, top-to-bottom leaders. And clearly, high-performing, top-to-bottom leaders thrive in a great organization.


Kenneth Jones