Friday, June 9, 2023

Selling ice to Eskimos? - Leadership development in very successful organizations

How do we sell leadership development solutions to an organization that has been very successful without having invested in leadership development? Should we even try to do that? Wouldn’t tinkering with the leadership capability and/or style of such an organization risk ruining the 'alchemy of the magic' of the organization’s success? If an organization has been very successful, shouldn’t we be learning from it instead of trying to change it? 

These questions are very important both for external consultants and for internal learning partners. They can also be quite tricky to answer, though many answers are indeed possible. Let’s look at seven of them.

  • “What got you here won’t get you there” kind of answers – They argue that the game is changing and hence you need a different set of leadership capabilities or at least a much higher level of the current set of leadership capabilities to achieve your vision or even to sustain the current position. 
  • "Good to great" kind of answers  - This is more of a 'there is always room for improvement' kind of argument, while fully acknowledging the consistent record of success so far. While the customer is unlikely to disagree with this philosophically, it might not be compelling enough to prompt action on the part of the customer, especially when the customer is already 'great' (or quite close to it) in their own opinion.       
  • “Success sweeps a lot of things under the carpet” kind of answers – Here the basic argument is that while the organization has been successful there are still a lot of things to fix in terms of the leadership capability and/or leadership style. For example, the leadership style might not be aligned to the espoused values or the target culture of the organization. Warning : If this is not  done very skillfully, it can degenerate into an unpleasant conversation with the customer very quickly (unless the customer has a very high levels of self-awareness and humility or has masochistic tendencies)!  
  • “A few great men and women” kind of answers – They argue that the success of the organization has been because of a particular set of leaders and that the others in the organization can benefit from leadership development inputs.  If the person who buys the leadership development solution considers himself/herself to be part of the ‘a few great men and women group', it works even better!
  • "We are just making you scalable" kind of answers - In this case, the argument becomes more like 'we are just helping you to decode your own success so that it becomes scalable'. This argument works best when the organization is growing rapidly. The advantage of this answer is that it avoids the concern related to tampering with what made the organization successful. 
  • “Let good thoughts come to us from all sides” kind of answers – They argue that while the organization might not need the skill building aspect of leadership development, just listening to the latest ideas/thinking can be useful or at least entertaining. It can also give the satisfaction that “we have implemented all these ‘latest’ ideas a million years ago”!
  • “Leadership development serves many purposes” kind of answers – Here the essential argument is that leadership development interventions serve many other useful purposes in addition to building leadership capabilities. Please see ‘The many lives of capability building programs’ for a comprehensive list of the ‘alternative uses.

Of course, many more such answers are possible. The all-important question is:  How will a particular organization respond to a particular answer/a particular line of argument? To a great extent, the response will depend on 'what the organization attributes its success to' and 'if the answer is in alignment with that attribution'.

So, where do all these leave us?

It is indeed possible that an organization has got many pieces of the leadership development puzzle right, even if they haven't formalized them as 'leadership development solutions'. For example, they might be using 'action learning projects', 'crucible roles' and 'on the job coaching' even when they are not using these terms. Therefore, a bit of 'Appreciative Inquiry' won't hurt. Afterall, humility is as relevant to the learning partners (internal/external) as it is to their clients!  We must also remember that leadership development is not mainly about 'leadership training programs' though they are the most visible part. I would even say that, in some instances, leadership training efforts are more like 'corporate rain dances'!

Logically speaking, the most important aspect here is the 'perceived net value' that the leadership development solution can add - in the short term and in the long term. This perception of value need not necessarily be purely rational (See 'Of reasons, rationalizations and collective delusions' for details). However, the point remains that 'what is valuable is defined by the customer'. Similarly, unless the customer acknowledges the 'need' or the 'opportunity' the discussion on the solutions (including leadership development solutions) can't really start. Of course, while highlighting the 'net value' that the leadership development solution can add, it is equally important to anticipate/address any stated or unstated concerns the customers might have about the leadership development solution or its implementation. 

Organizations, especially the successful organizations, have a tendency to think that they are unique and that they have figured out a unique way to be successful. Yes, it is possible that an organization has been successful because of, irrespective of or even in spite of the leadership capability it has. Also, attribution errors are quite common (for example, attributing success to internal factors and attributing failures to external factors). Yes, ‘time will tell’ – but it might be too late for the people who are trying to sell leadership development solutions to a particular organization! 

Chris Argyris in his seminal article ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’, argues that people who have been consistently successful tend to become very good at ‘single-loop learning’ and that they don’t develop the capability for ‘double-loop learning’ which becomes essential when the fundamental assumptions they have been using for problem solving/responding to the environment are no longer valid. I guess, it applies to organizations too! Therefore, 'facilitating double-loop learning' kind of approaches do have their place in this context also! In the case of internal consultants, 'acting as some sort of a 'court jester in the corporate context' can also be helpful in this endeavor (See 'Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters' for details)!

Can you think of any other answers to the question that we started this post with?

Any other comments/ideas?  


Anand said...

As usual, very well conceptualized and lucidly written Prasad. Another answer could be that the organization found itself in a strategic sweet spot years ago and what leaders do or do not do matters very little as long as they don't damage things!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Anand! Yes, that is also very much possible! Regards, Prasad