Leadership training needs to be blown up and redone

Leadership training

Leadership training — which admittedly barely exists at many companies — needs a rather large overhaul. I could theoretically write 10 million words on this topic, but that would likely bore most people, so I’ll try to keep it a little bit tighter. Let’s unfurl this as a series of bouncing balls.

The old leadership model and leadership training

Old-school work, i.e. 20+ years ago, was largely based on control of information and assets. Only the top levels of an organization had that, so the decision-making had to run through them almost entirely. This is a bit of a generalization, yes, but I have to generalize here because every company is different in its own way. (Like millennials!)

I didn’t sit in leadership training classes 20, 30 years ago — I was six 30 years ago — so I can’t tell you what they were like. But I know from some Stanford research that they were predominantly about process skills around stuff like:

  • Cost-cutting
  • Margins
  • Keeping people productive
  • Etc, etc.

Makes sense, as those were the hallmarks of work back when. It was a “key strategy” to withhold information down a business chain to the point that it probably made some execs giddy.

The new leadership model and leadership training

The thing that happened with leadership is this: the surrounding context changed, but a lot of the people couldn’t give up the model above.

Mainly what changed was technology and access to information, be that via the Internet, mobile, or the cloud. A 1972 Fortune 500 CEO had to have a team of lieutenants to run/organize information for him. Now he has access to the same stuff that probably a 17 year-old girl in Anaheim could get on her phone, minus maybe some proprietary documents. Information is freer, which requires a new look at leadership — and a new look at leadership training. Unfortunately, because the old model is all some people really understand (and it’s fun to them), that old command and control model has persisted in many organizations. Of course, most of these places claim to be “digital-first” and “innovative for the 21st century” or whatever. In reality their execs hoard all the information and bonus money and if you disagree with that, they fire you. Welcome to Two-Faced Reality.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s a quote from the CEO of Kaiser Permanente talking about all this:

The days of a hierarchical leader being the know-all, the understand-all, and the be-all individual makes no sense in today’s environment. You have an organization made up of people with skills, talent, and intelligence. The challenge is no longer how to instruct people in what to do. It is to set the direction and performance expectations, and then to inspire and motivate people.

Nice. Here’s a later part of the discussion:

I would argue that, in simplistic terms, the old model was [that] those in management were the thinkers, and the rest of the workers were the doers. Now we live in a day and age where everybody gets to think and do. I want the frontline nurse, who has access to the same information I do, to act on the information pertaining to his or her profession and, with that access and freedom, come up with new ideas and new ways of getting work done.

Now, of course, the elephant in the room…

That’s a great CEO quote and it seems like he “gets” it. Problem is, CEOs are masters of lip service. That’s how they become CEOs. So like, does he really feel the way he’s describing? We don’t know unless we work there or report to him directly. He could say all this stuff about the “front-line nurse” and then micro-manage everyone to the absolute hilt. That happens a lot. People say one thing and do something else. Usually it’s safer to judge people on what they do. Show me the attrition numbers!

OK. So how do we improve leadership training for now?

I’d argue you have a few different things to look at:

Care: This is where everything starts. If no one cares and the place is just “Spreadsheet Mentality,” i.e. “Show me the numbers and nothing else,” then no leadership training program will ever take hold.

Move it from HR or reduce HR’s role: Most hard-chargers don’t care about HR, so anything owned by them they’re going to half-ass. Until HR rises up in importance, this is 100 percent true.

Frame it contextually around time and stress: Most managers feel they’re insanely stressed and have no time to breathe as is. You can’t design some “three-day off-site” deal because most of them will just be maniacally checking their email 70 percent of the time. If you’re going to do a portal or something (which makes sense in the modern economy), it’s gotta reflect that managers view themselves as super-busy all the time. Nothing can be done in huge time chunks.


The focus must be soft skills: Most managers struggle here. We could do leadership training around basic logistical skills, but that’s stupid in 2017. Why? Most of those things can be done by software. (Like a CRM.) What managers need to be better at is communicating with direct reports, recognizing them, understanding their strengths, having career dialogues with them, and setting priorities. The leadership training toolkit needs to start there.

Use data: Ah-ha, data! The new oil! But seriously: if you have data that shows what seems to make managers in your company effective, well, use that data to design leadership training around those skills. Then you can pull other managers up to the high bar level!

A funny story on leadership training to wrap 

I’ve had two separate jobs where the VP level and above went on a “leadership training” retreat, had about 3 hours/meetings per day, and spent the rest of the time firing off emails, doing zip lines, firing off more emails, and getting hammered with each other at night.

Let’s be clear on something: this is not leadership training. This is “giving a handjob to leadership because they already are leadership.” That’s literally the entire problem of the modern workforce in some ways — we keep thinking of “getting to the top” as a destination, as opposed to another step in the journey. If you get there and think “Now I get to get shitfaced on the company dime more and more,” (destination) that’s an issue in terms of how everyone else down the chain will ultimately feel.

Point being: “leadership training” has to really mean leadership training. It can’t just be an excuse to party under the guise of “development.”

Anything else you got on leadership training?

Ted Bauer


  1. As usual, you nailed it. While I haven’t seen as much partying on the company dime in the last decade, I’m sure it’s out there, alive and well. The “group development” mentality is a curious thing since there’s plenty of research to show that the higher up the chain you go, the more of an individualized experiential sport leader development becomes, (PDI 2012). Those of us who’ve been in this business for years know that to be true. In it’s most effective form, leader development is a lot like kayaking training. You start out in a group setting out of the water where you can’t drown your fool self because you don’t yet know basic theory and mechanics of the sport. Then, as quickly as they can, instructors move you onto the water and in most cases work with you side by side as you master various techniques and water conditions. Furthering the analogy, this is where HR absolutely messes it up and loses credibility. They often see the kayaks as too expensive and trips to the water as too risky, expensive and time consuming. (And they wonder why Executives still report undervaluing their services, especially around development)…

    If you want to develop leaders in the agile fluid environment that is modern business, you have to put the experts in kayaks next to that leader (or in the lower ranks groups of leaders) and hit the whitewater beside them. For the literal minded types out there, I’m inferring you need to create coaching/learning partnerships and group coaching for mid to lower ranks. Even if THAT’s not affordable, creating matrices of cross-functional experiences and executive stretch assignments you can plug leaders into is better than the classroom approach that many HR types still feel is the A to Z approach for development.

    Two huge take-aways from your article are the implications many of us now know as truth: 1)Leader development is NOT a case where “something is better than nothing.” If it’s done the old way, it’s worthless unless there’s an experiential component tied to it. 2) If you want development tied to results, get it OUT of HR unless you have a proactive HRD leadership structure proven it’s able to deliver measurable results tied to current goals and strategies.

    Thanks as always, Ted!

  2. I hope we ban the use of “soft skills” and talk about “higher order skills” of communication, giving feedback, recognition, etc. As long as we call them “soft skills” they will never be taken as seriously as they need to be. Your article is right on target. Thanks!

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