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Leadership at Scale: Better Leadership, Better Results
With organizations undergoing unprecedented shifts and the nature of work moving to an increasingly decentralized model, leaders now more than ever need to help their organizations adapt quickly to new realities. Despite leadership development being a top priority for most CEOs, the results seldom achieve their objectives. Leadership programs fail to make a meaningful difference to business performance, and organizations fall short on the leadership talent they need.
Many leadership development programs focus on bringing universal leadership qualities to a few individuals in a company. Our research shows that approach is not effective. In today’s world of constant change and decentralized decision-making, organizations need to drive leadership throughout the organization. That requires a new approach.
Grounded in insights from over 375,000 data points and the global experience of more than 25 senior leadership practitioners, Leadership at Scale shows how to drive leadership effectiveness that reaches the entire organization, adapting to diverse contexts and achieving impact at scale.
Illustrated by a fictional step-by-step case and numerous real-life examples, the book identifies four principles as the key to success:
- Focus on the leadership behaviors most effective for driving organizational performance
- Engage a critical mass of influencers across the organization to reach a tipping point for the change to become self-sustaining
- Design programs for lasting behavioral change, using the latest adult learning principles based on neuroscience
- Integrate the program into the broader organizational systems and measure the program’s impact
Combining research and rigor with practical application, Leadership at Scale is required reading for today’s leaders who seek to unlock organizational performance through leadership effectiveness.
Decoding leadership: What really matters
New research suggests that the secret to developing effective leaders is to encourage four types of behavior.
Telling CEOs these days that leadership drives performance is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe. Over 90 percent of CEOs are already planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human-capital issue their organizations face.1 And they’re right to do so: earlier McKinsey research has consistently shown that good leadership is a critical part of organizational health, which is an important driver of shareholder returns.2
A big, unresolved issue is what sort of leadership behavior organizations should encourage. Is leadership so contextual that it defies standard definitions or development approaches?3 Should companies now concentrate their efforts on priorities such as role modeling, making decisions quickly, defining visions, and shaping leaders who are good at adapting? Should they stress the virtues of enthusiastic communication? In the absence of any academic or practitioner consensus on the answers, leadership-development programs address an extraordinary range of issues, which may help explain why only 43 percent of CEOs are confident that their training investments will bear fruit.
Our most recent research, however, suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among frontline leaders. Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits. Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations4 around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations. Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index) and those that were weak (bottom quartile).
What we found was that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior; these 4, indeed, explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness (exhibit).
- Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).
- Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.
- Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.
- Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.
We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant. Experience shows that different business situations often require different styles of leadership. We do believe, however, that our research points to a kind of core leadership behavior that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line. For organizations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritizing these four areas is a good place to start.
What’s missing in leadership development?
Only a few actions matter, and they require the CEO’s attention.
Organizations have always needed leaders who are good at recognizing emerging challenges and inspiring organizational responses. That need is intensifying today as leaders confront, among other things, digitization, the surging power of data as a competitive weapon, and the ability of artificial intelligence to automate the workplace and enhance business performance. These technology-driven shifts create an imperative for most organizations to change, which in turn demands more and better leaders up and down the line.
Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence that the plethora of services, books, articles, seminars, conferences, and TED-like talks purporting to have the answers—a global industry estimated to be worth more than $50 billion—are delivering disappointing results. According to a recent Fortune survey, only 7 percent of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, and just 10 percent said that their leadership-development initiatives have a clear business impact. Our latest research has a similar message: only 11 percent of more than 500 executives we polled around the globe strongly agreed with the statement that their leadership-development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results.
In our survey, we asked executives to tell us about the circumstances in which their leadership-development programs were effective and when they were not. We found that much needs to happen for leadership development to work at scale, and there is no “silver bullet” that will singlehandedly make the difference between success and failure (Exhibit 1).
That said, statistically speaking, four sets of interventions appear to matter most: contextualizing the program based on the organization’s position and strategy, ensuring sufficient reach across the organization, designing the program for the transfer of learning, and using system reinforcement to lock in change (Exhibit 2). This is the first time we have amassed systematic data on the interventions that seem to drive effective leadership-development programs. Interestingly, the priorities identified by our research are to a large extent mirror images of the most common mistakes that businesses make when trying to improve the capabilities of their managers. Collectively, they also help emphasize the central role of technology today in necessitating and enabling strong leadership development.
Focus on the shifts that matter
In our survey, executives told us that their organizations often fail to translate their company’s strategy into a leadership model specific to their needs (whether it is, say, to support a turnaround, a program of acquisitions, or a period of organic growth). Conversely, organizations with successful leadership-development programs were eight times more likely than those with unsuccessful ones to have focused on leadership behavior that executives believed were critical drivers of business performance.1
The implications are clear for organizations seeking to master today’s environment of accelerating disruption: leadership-development efforts must be animated by those new strategic imperatives, translating them into growth priorities for individual managers, with empathy for the degree of change required. An important piece of the puzzle is enhancing the ability of leaders to adapt to different situations and adjust their behavior (something that requires a high degree of self-awareness and a learning mind-set). Leaders with these attributes are four times more prepared to lead amidst change.
Make it an organizational journey, not cohort specific
Ensuring sufficient reach across the organization has always been important to the success of leadership-development efforts. Organizations with successful programs were six to seven times more likely than their less successful peers to pursue interventions covering the whole organization, and to design programs in the context of a broader leadership-development strategy. The same went for companies whose leadership strategy and model reached all levels of the organization.
Achieving sufficient reach amidst today’s rapid change is challenging: most leadership-development programs are typically of short duration (a few weeks to several months), sporadic, and piecemeal—making it difficult for the program to keep up with changes in the organization’s priorities, much less develop a critical mass of leaders ready to pursue them.
Fortunately, technology isn’t just stimulating the need for change; it’s also enabling faster, more flexible, large-scale learning on digital platforms that can host tailored leadership development, prompt leaders to work on specific kinds of behavior, and create supportive communities of practice, among other possibilities.
Design for the transfer of learning
Technology can also help companies break out of the “teacher and classroom” (facilitator and workshop) model that so many still rely on, maximizing the value and organizational impact of what is taught and learned. Fast-paced digital learning is easier to embed in the day-to-day work flows of managers. Every successful leader tells stories of how he or she developed leadership capabilities by dealing with a real problem in a specific context, and our survey provides supporting evidence for these anecdotes: companies with successful leadership-development programs were four to five times more likely to require participants to apply their learnings in new settings over an extended period and to practice them in their job.
This is just one of several modern adult-learning principles grounded in neuroscience that companies can employ to speed the behavior and mind-set shifts leaders need to thrive in today’s fast-changing environment. Others include learning through a positive frame (successful leadership developers were around three times more likely to allow participants to build on a strength rather than correcting a development area), and providing coaching that encourages introspection and self-discovery (which also was three times more prevalent among successful leadership developers).
Leadership-development efforts have always foundered when participants learn new things, but then return to a rigid organization that disregards their efforts for change or even actively works against them. Given the pace of change today, adapting systems, processes, and culture that can support change-enabling leadership development is critically important. Technology can support organizational interventions that accelerate the process. For example, blogs, video messages, and social-media platforms help leaders engage with many more people as they seek to foster understanding, create conviction, and act as role models for the desired leadership behavior and competencies.
Also critical are formal mechanisms (such as the performance-management system, the talent-review system, and shifts in organizational structure) for reinforcing the required changes in competencies.2 In our latest research, we found that successful leadership-development programs were roughly five to six times more likely to involve senior leaders acting as project sponsors, mentors, and coaches and to encompass adaptations to HR systems aimed at reinforcing the new leadership model. Data-enabled talent-management systems—popularized by Google and often referred to as people analytics—can increase the number of people meaningfully evaluated against new competencies and boost the precision of that evaluation.
Most CEOs have gotten religion about the impact of accelerating disruption and the need to adapt in response. Time and again, though, we see those same CEOs forgetting about the need to translate strategy into specific organizational capabilities, paying lip service to their talent ambitions, and delegating responsibility to the head of learning with a flourish of fine words, only for that individual to complain later about lack of support from above. To be fair, CEOs are pulled in many directions, and they note that leadership development often doesn’t make an impact on performance in the short run.
At the same time, we see many heads of learning confronting CEOs with a set of complex interwoven interventions, not always focusing on what matters most.
But as the pace of change for strategies and business models increases, so does the cost of lagging leadership development. If CEOs and their top teams are serious about long-term performance, they need to commit themselves to the success of corporate leadership-development efforts now. Chief human-resource officers and heads of learning need to simplify their programs, focusing on what really matters.
By Claudio Feser, Nicolai Nielsen, and Michael Rennie
Full link: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/five-fifty-leadership-at-scale?cid=fivefifty-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1811&hlkid=258647ea39ac4dee8933f973a4702ddc&hctky=2618809&hdpid=8b4df7b3-e1d2-44c4-9a82-e5c4c172a3a6