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Jørgen Thorsell & Didier Gonin: the hottest new trends in executive development

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Jørgen Thorsell and Didier Gonin are senior executives with Denmark-based Mannaz A/S (formerly The Danish Leadership Institute). With offices in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the UK, Mannaz is a leading European Executive Development and training consultancy.

Between September 2008 and February 2009, and in partnership with the California-based Institute of Executive Development, Mannaz undertook a White Paper research project of current trends in Executive Development and leadership training. The research covered international companies operating in over 50 countries, and is based on responses received from some 111 senior corporate executives, heads of Human Resources and of Learning & Organizational Development.

Also included in the research are the thoughts of some 50 experienced practitioners involved in executive coaching as well as in designing, developing and facilitating Leadership Development programmes.

Thorsell and Gonin authored the White Paper on the survey results which is titled “Innovation in Leadership Development.” Here they present a summary of the White Paper and offer some thoughts about what it will take to turn the current economic and financial crisis into an opportunity for reinvention and renewal.

Survey findings from corporate executives

Part I of the White Paper presents a detailed analysis of the findings of the research in addition to reflections from corporate executives, heads of Human Resources and of Learning & Organizational Development. These are key findings of the current perspectives and trends which are being practiced around the world in Leadership Development programmes. The most important of these findings are:

  • Revenue growth, innovation and talent management are the three major business challenges respondents declare that their organizations are facing.

  • Today, organizations – beyond building leadership capabilities for the future – use Leadership Development initiatives mostly to support organizational change; build a mindset and culture for innovation and help leaders implement strategies, communicate vision, mission and values.
  • The Leadership Development practices seen as the most powerful ones are interactive: coaching and mentoring, leaders training leaders, action learning, succession planning, etc.
  • “Top down”, “academic”, “one way” communication and teaching as well as too generic programmes not linked to business strategy are viewed as the least effective practices.
  • The organization’s strategy has the greatest influence in shaping leadership development initiatives.
  • The CEO and executive teams are most likely to contribute as sponsors and give input about desired programme impact to ensure the connection between leader development and the achievement of business results.
  • Organizations continue to focus on individual/personal development in order to achieve their desired organizational development goals.
  • The four biggest challenges to developing leaders are:
    1. connecting leadership development and business results;
    2. executive time for participating in development activities;
    3. financial constraints; and
    4. communicating effectively within the organization about Leadership Development activities and initiatives.
  • Only 31 per cent of respondents declare that it is very important to measure the impact of Leadership Development activities.

  • The top three priorities for Leadership Development today are:
    1. to increase executive quality;
    2. to implement strategy; and
    3. to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation.
  • Some of the new development methods organizations expect to use in the future include:
    • external insights with customers/suppliers;
    • more peer networking and learning;
    • involving the Board more in programmes; and
    • using ad hoc technology. 
  • Coaching, leader to leader development, action learning projects and stretch assignments will become increasingly important as methods to develop global leaders in the coming years.

  • Lecturing/teaching and outdoor activities will become less important.
  • About a third of leader development budgets are expected to decrease in the next two-three years, a third is expected to increase and another third to stay the same.
  • When choosing an external provider, the most important criteria considered are; expertise in the required field, followed by innovative approaches and price level for the service.

"... a large number of organizations seem to rely on innovation as one of the primary ways to overcome the crisis. Could we use Leadership Development initiatives to generate and focus on breakthrough solutions for our organizations?"

Survey findings from Leadership Development experts

Part II of the White Paper presents the thoughts of experienced trainers, consultants and executive coaches on emerging trends in Leadership Development. These are themes which are currently evolving and should be taken into account when companies are developing their leadership programmes. For example:

  • Apply Leadership Development for crafting an innovative strategy within your organization, by acknowledging that everyone can contribute to the strategic thinking process by;
    • finding new ways to tap into the reservoir of ideas in the organization;
    • helping leaders find a better balance between operational and strategic work;
    • giving strategic assignments and projects;
    • asking people to translate strategies into meaningful “game plans”; and
    • creating new opportunities for intact teams and whole business units to contribute to shaping the strategy, etc.
  • Managing global work groups, project teams and virtual teams by:
    • finding new ways to share key projects internationally;
    • using innovative ways to communicate across borders;
    • employing electronic media to foster real time communication;
    • using a less individualistic and adopting a more “team-focused” and collective approach to the work at hand;
    • building trust and bonding as a team; and
    • using team dynamics dialogue, etc.
  • Assessing and developing leadership potential by:
    • creating opportunities for people to better understand other roles, contributions and function in the organization;
    • developing highly relevant competency models;
    • offering short term assignments, task forces, strategic project work and interdisciplinary workshops;  
    • offering development centres; and
    • nurturing a “tree nursery” of talent, etc.
  • Developing “business partners” and “trusted advisors” in all staff functions, by:
    • developing specific skills and attitudes;
    • learning how to develop trust, ensure reliability, establish credibility, develop intimacy and demonstrate a caring and serving attitude;  
    • providing tools to monitor development and progress; and
    • better demonstrating how staff functions can be recognized for what they bring to the business and to the bottom line of the organization.
  • Fostering creativity and innovation within the organization by:
    • mapping out innovation networks;
    • using good software available to do it;
    • offering “creative space” and “creative time” to employees;
    • truly disseminating innovation and best practices throughout the organization; and
    • smartly encouraging and “sponsoring” innovation, etc.
  • Resolving conflicts and reducing the cost of conflicts for organizations by:
    • investing widely in conflict prevention;
    • training managers to address conflicts and learn about mediation; and
    • developing approaches to anticipate and prevent conflict, etc.
  • From “leading from the front” to “leading from the back”, by:
    • focusing on how leaders can make more room for their people;
    • learning how to step back and “let go”;
    • enabling everyone to give ideas and suggestions;
    • influencing without using one’s position power;
    • creating a true “leadership culture” across the organization;
    • giving to “non-charismatic leaders” a true chance to contribute, be effective as a team leader, catalyst, facilitator, networker; and
    • adopting a “gardening approach” to knowledge management and leadership, etc.

Processes and methods

Practitioners then suggested innovative development processes and methods which are currently evolving,  such as:

  • Use Leadership Development as a vehicle for organization development by “modelling the way” from the top of the organization; by designing, for example, initiatives with only intact management teams, starting from the top of the organization, using 360° feedback between colleagues, agreeing behavioural norms, holding each other accountable and supporting one another long after a training event. 

  • Offering more in depth appraisal of needs and more customized initiatives. Conducted with professionalism and rigour, with different stakeholders (senior executives, middle managers, sample groups of direct reports, etc.), and using different methods with in-depth needs analyses leading to highly customized initiatives fitting the very specific needs of an organization.
  • Rethinking the Leadership Development process, by:
    • moving away from “one off” programmes to leadership journeys planned over several months or a year;
    • putting more focus on team development and organizational impact;
    • developing and offering tools and learning resources to support the integration and application of what is learned;
    • giving more and new types of support to leaders before and after programmes;
    • communicating better about Leadership Development initiatives;
    • integrating more Leadership Development into on-the-job activities; and
    • fostering coaching and mentoring approaches and processes, etc.

Innovative ideas from the survey

The survey also included an “idea box” section. Practitioners were asked to offer innovative ideas for the best way forward in Executive Development. A few of those suggested are:

  • Organizing learning expeditions for senior executives.
  • Analyzing trends and doing “prospective work” with your leaders.
  • Exploring ethical dilemmas with others.
  • Using a “detour” to open minds and foster learning.
  • Using voice training and drama techniques.
  • Dealing better with negative emotions and stress.
  • Putting managers in front of realities they often ignore or are protected from.

Emerging client needs

Practitioners also reflected on emerging client needs and expectations as they experience them. For example:

  • A more research-based and innovative Leadership Development.
  • Establishing stronger links between strategy and the “soft” people management side.
  • Cross-fertilization, sharing of ideas, networking.
  • Working with top experts.
  • Co-producing and/or co-facilitating with clients.
  • Finding and working with partners one can trust, etc.

In its conclusions, the White Paper offers some reflections on Leadership Development in a time of economic crisis and asks the questions:

  • Could the crisis trigger the emergence of new models for the organization?
  • Do we need to rethink the shape, form and structure of our organizations to be more agile and better positioned to face the current crisis?
  • What are the alternative models that we could use?
  • How could we use Leadership Development to support the emergence of such models?

The results of this research show that a large number of organizations seem to rely on innovation as one of the primary ways to overcome the crisis. Could we use Leadership Development initiatives to generate and focus on breakthrough solutions for our organizations?

Innovation is everything – except a “buzz word.”

November 2009.

Jørgen Thorsell & Didier Gonin: the hottest new trends in executive development