How do we fix leadership?

Photo of a class of adult students asleep with their heads on the desksThis is a follow-up post to an article I wrote on LinkedIn last week asking “Where’s the Future of Leadership?”

How can we improve the working lives and careers of all employees and support bottom-line results?

It’s a simple question, and it has a simple answer: we need to develop the skills and confidence of first-line managers and leaders. And the old ways of doing so aren’t working.

We need a new model of leadership education.

The old way relies on “best practices” that are themselves old, arising out of an industrial-era command-and-control hierarchical approach that’s no longer relevant.

The old way either ignores first-line leadership training altogether, or it relies on an intensive educational process that puts cohorts of aspiring leaders through a set curriculum. Everyone’s on the same page at the same time, which inherently limits individual opportunities to learn from other people’s varying levels of understanding and experience.

The curriculum in these programs is set and therefore inflexible, limiting in-the-moment teaching of important concepts and skills based on the students’ needs and situations, and failing to take advantage of the facilitator’s own evolution and ongoing learning.

And these programs often teach with case studies, which themselves have two important drawbacks.

First, case studies are historical. Situations such as Enron, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo (classic business-school case studies) are presented as self-contained big-bang events. But that’s not how they happen. These corporate meltdowns unravel gradually in small incremental steps. Case studies don’t provide insight into these small steps, and therefore don’t teach practical, useful ways to spot problems before they mushroom out of control.

Second, case studies are extremely difficult for an emerging leader to translate into their individual situations and experience, and so have little practical relevance for their leadership growth.

So what do students learn from case studies?

They learn to debate history. They don’t learn to identify and divert or mitigate problems at the initial, something’s-just-starting-to-go-wrong stage within their organization and its culture.

The old way of leadership development is also expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. High-value programs generally come with correspondingly high prices, putting them out of reach for any significant population of first-line managers and leaders in the organization.

But it’s exactly those first-line managers and leaders who have the highest impact on your employee population as a whole, and therefore – let’s be real! – on the overall success or failure of both your day-to-day work and your mission-critical strategic initiatives.

What I realized in asking this question is:

We badly need a new approach to developing our leaders.

We need a model that delivers foundational leadership skills training in ways that leverage the flexibility offered by technology to maximize student-facilitator interactions and minimize the impact on students’ busy schedules.

In practical terms, this means short, focused video lessons, concise handouts, and hands-on exercises and practices that participants can use immediately in their workplace.

It means extending the curriculum with weekly live videoconference calls. These must be structured, addressing additional topics relevant to the participants’ in-the-moment experience and needs, and never allowing any one person to suck up all the air in the room (sadly a fairly common experience in many group programs). These calls should be recorded for review or for those who can’t make the live call.

Each participant should also receive at least one personal coaching session, timed according to foundational content in the teaching materials. Weekly “office hours” time allows them to come to the videoconference space and receive in-the-moment coaching on any leadership situation they’re encountering or any questions they have about the material.

Finally, offering rolling admission into the program creates vibrant, supportive interaction. Since each participant is at a different point on their learning and leadership journey, they can actively share their different perspectives and discover how to mentor – and receive mentoring – from different types of people at different stages of the process.

Finally, the program must be deliberately affordable: low-ticket and ridiculously high-value.

These are the answers that emerged for me when I asked that question of how we can improve the working lives and careers of all employees and support bottom-line results. And therefore, that’s the program that I created.

What’s your answer to this question?