Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Leadership training and Corporate Rain dance

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a report which said that in the current difficult economic scenario, Indian companies are investing more in leadership training programs for their senior managers. The ‘espoused interpretation’ for this was that it will help the senior managers to be better leaders, enabling them to respond more effectively to the challenging scenario. While this was certainly a possibility, it did make me wonder if there are other interpretations possible. That is where rain dance comes in.

Let us begin by taking a closer look at the terms.
Rain dance is a ritual that is intended to invoke rain. The rain dance was common among tribes who lived in regions that received very little rain. Since the little rain they did receive was essential for their survival, they felt compelled to something to invoke rain (to influence their destiny). The result was rain dances. Over a period of time, intricate rain dance rituals were developed (that were supposed to do a better job when it comes to rainmaking). While there is no empirical evidence that rain dances caused rain, they did serve other useful purposes like giving them hope, enabling them to feel that they have some degree of control over their destiny/environment, deepening relationships among the members of the tribe etc.  
Leadership training involves all the training programs (Instructor-Led-Training programs) that employees are sent to with the purpose of making them ‘better leaders’ (whatever that might mean). These can be internal or external training programs (often designed/delivered by consultants/business schools). They are usually conducted off site (away from the pressures and distractions of regular work) and are often very expensive.

Corporate rain dance would mean rituals (events/ceremonies/programs) in corporate life that are designed to achieve an essential business objective (better business results/business survival in difficult times etc.) without sufficient empirical evidence that the ritual actually leads to the intended outcome. Going back to the report on the increased investment in leadership development programs, it made me wonder if they (at least to some extent) constitute some sort of corporate rain dance. Of course, there are other examples of corporate rain dance, including many types of ‘strategic business planning meetings’!
I have nothing against rituals in corporate life. Businesses are run by human beings and rituals have always played an important role in human societies. Please see ‘Accelerated learning and Rites of passage’ for an example of how to leverage the power of rituals in business organizations. It is just that we should be aware of what they can and cannot do when we are investing in them.

Leadership training is a Multi-Billion-Dollar industry. There is also a huge amount of literature on ‘leadership’. I have no intention to get into a detailed discussion on ‘leadership’ here. (Please see ‘Of leaders and battle-scars’, ‘The leadership sandwich’ & ‘Reasons, Rationalizations & Collective Delusions’ for some of my thoughts). For the purpose of this post, I will just raise the top five questions that have been bothering me("The best fool can ask more than the wisest man can tell" J).
  1. If ‘learning’ is defined as ‘sustained change in behavior’ how much empirical evidence exists that ‘learning’ results from leadership training programs?
  2. There are many people in top management positions who speak eloquently about the great leadership training programs their companies have. However, I have rarely heard anyone of them talking about a particular leadership training program they have attended that made them (or played a big part in making them) who they are now.
  3.  If ‘leadership development’ goes much beyond ‘leadership training’ (and if leadership is supposed to be learned ‘on the job’ supported by coaching) then why is most of the money/effort is concentrated on ‘offsite’ leadership training? 
  4. To what extent are the designs of leadership training programs based on a deep understanding of the concept of leadership? If the design is based on a particular leadership model/theory, has enough effort been made to check the empirical validity of the theory/model?
  5. If the underlying model of leadership goes beyond the traits and leadership style of the leader, to focus on the relationship between the leader and the followers, then why emphasis is only on training the leaders? Can any form of leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers? 
Now, let us look at another type of ‘corporate rain dance’ that happens frequently in the domain of leadership development : redesigning leadership competency frameworks & then redesigning all the leadership training programs based  on the new competency framework. Here also the underlying belief (that leads to the rain dance) is that by changing the leadership competency framework we can build better leaders and thereby improve business performance. Sometimes, this can also be a case of 'Training the Victim'. A few years ago, I heard (from reliable sources) about a global company, that changed its leadership competency framework because the new CEO said something like ‘Leaders should Lead’ in a meeting with the HR Leadership team. In response to that statement from the CEO, the HR Head ordered redesign of the leadership competency framework & all the leadership training programs based on the same, spending Millions of Dollars. It also ensured that HR people at the global corporate office (who were under the threat of losing their jobs) kept their jobs and (as the company was a global giant) it contributed to the GDP of many countries in terms of spend on downstream work like ‘Train the Trainer programs’, reprinting of program material & of course putting the leaders through the newly developed training programs.

I am not saying that one should not redesign leadership competency frameworks. It is very easy to find fault with any leadership competency framework and hence no one can argue against the need to redesign the same. The trouble is just that the new framework might also have an equal number of (but possibly different) problems. Hence, unless there is a very clear difference between the new and the old leadership competency framework (that too very clearly aligned to a key strategic priority), the Return On Investment is unlikely to be positive. I also think that ‘competency frameworks are only an intermediate stage’ and that one needs to go beyond them..
Now, let us come back to leadership training programs. What exactly am I trying to say?

One does pick up useful insights, ideas and concepts from these programs. They provide a welcome break from the unpleasant realities of work. They can also act as some kind of signalling mechanism - to communicate (to the participants & to the significant others around them) that some people have been identified as leaders.

Like rain dance, they provide an opportunity connect more deeply with colleagues, provide new hope to the participants & provide satisfaction to the business head that something is being done to improve the business situation. The participants might also see them as recognition/reward– especially if the program is offered only to a select few/if the program is considered to be a prestigious one/if the program is an expensive one (remember, it is tax efficient also - for both the employer and the employee!) . The program might even have some placebo effect on leadership behaviors!J 

Going back to another beneficial dimension of rituals, leadership training programs can also act as 'rites of passage'/'initiation rites' to leadership-  especially if they (like initiation rites in tribal societies) involve doing 'dangerous things'; this danger can be either psychological (like doing something silly in front of a group) or physical (like what happens in some of the outbound training programs) - as they help in transitioning to a new self!! Hence, just as rain dance served a useful purpose in tribal societies for many centuries, leadership training programs can also serve a useful purpose in business organizations – even if that purpose is not the same as the espoused purpose!

If, the rain dance (leadership training program) is not leading to rain (developing better leaders), the organization should seriously consider whether to invest more in 'making the dance better' (e.g. by adding more modules to the leadership training program) or to explore other ways for rainmaking. Improving the dance can add to its value as a ritual up to a point (but not beyond that). Of course, it is possible that some of the other popular ways of rainmaking (e.g. 360 degree feedback) might also turn out to be 'rain dances'! But some of them (e.g. putting people through roles designed to provide a higher learning potential & helping them to derive meaning from their experience in those roles through coaching) might actually work!!!   

Any comments/ideas?