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Participants described the program as very powerful. For a whole week they engaged in numerous tasks that required teamwork, and they received real-time feedback on both individual and group behavior. The program ended with a plan for taking the learning back into the organization. A couple of years later, when a new general manager came in to lead the division, he requested an assessment of the costly program.
As it turned out, managers thought little had changed as a result of the training, even though it had been inspiring at the time. As a change strategy, training clearly had not worked. Only one in four senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes. Still, senior executives and their HR teams continue to pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But what they actually need is a new way of thinking about learning and development.
Education with the objective of individual growth is worthy in its own right, of course, and people are eager to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them advance in their careers. However, the primary reason senior executives and HR invest in management training is to make their leaders and organizations more effective, and results on that front have been disappointing. Only one in four reported that it was critical to achieving business outcomes.
Researchers noted problems with training programs as early as the s, during the seminal Ohio State leadership studies. The only exceptions were those whose bosses practiced and believed in the new leadership style the program was designed to teach. The problem was that even well-trained and motivated employees could not apply their new knowledge and skills when they returned to their units, which were entrenched in established ways of doing things.
In short, the individuals had less power to change the system surrounding them than that system had to shape them.
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For instance, research by Seymour Lieberman, of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, found that unionized frontline workers promoted to supervisory roles adopted pro-management attitudes, and managers forced by a recession to return to frontline jobs reverted to pro-union and antimanagement attitudes. In fact, most of them never regained that status during the five-year study. Those who did had taken their teams—the systems that had helped them succeed—with them when they changed companies. When the researchers looked at a corporate training program aimed at improving problem solving and communication between managers and subordinates, they discovered that success varied across the company.
Employees below the top become cynical.
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Corporate leaders may fool themselves into believing that they are implementing real change through corporate education, but others in the organization know better, as we saw in the MEPD example. For two reasons. First, they implicitly view the organization as an aggregation of individuals.
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If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behavior change—indeed, it will set people up to fail. Those are the things to fix before training can succeed longer-term. In our work helping managers have honest conversations about the effectiveness of their organizations, we hear about six common barriers. We saw firsthand how they initially thwarted leadership development at a UK medical technology company. The CEO, unsatisfied with his management bench, sought advice on building it out.
Though his partners in HR recommended investments in training, he instead took a step back and asked us to help his senior team enable managers in the organization to speak truth to power about barriers to their development. A task force empowered to conduct confidential interviews reported that lack of training was not the issue. Rather, the senior team had not articulated a clear strategy and corporate values, so managers did not understand what practices and behaviors were expected of them.
Nor did the top team spend much time discussing talent and planning developmental assignments for high potentials. In fact, because senior management had not created an integrated corporation, leaders were hoarding the best talent and transferring the worst to enable their own business units to succeed. Clearly, the company had to tackle these systemic issues before it could implement a productive learning program for managers. Indeed, improving cross-unit integration would itself be a capability-development experience for the senior team and key managers that would lead to a better understanding of skills gaps that training and education might address.
Note that problems are diagnosed from the ground up. Those confidential employee interviews are critical for exposing the silent killers, including deficiencies in capabilities and talent management, because leaders often lack the objectivity to spot glitches in systems they have created. By addressing management practices and leadership behavior that shape the system before training individual employees, leaders create a favorable context for applying learning.
The systemic changes encourage—even require—the desired behaviors. In practice, these steps tend to overlap and are periodically recycled for continual improvement.
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We list them in sequence to emphasize the importance of placing individual development after organizational redesign. You also want leaders, their senior teams, and lower-level managers to develop on the job, as they learn individually and collectively to enact their redefined roles, responsibilities, and relationships. A consultant in HR can take advantage of real-time successes and failures to help managers reflect on the consequences of their actions and see alternatives. Just as important, learning and performance improvements occur simultaneously, enabling the business to recoup its investment immediately and more effectively.
Their diagnosis revealed why and how interfunctional conflict, political behavior, and embedded managerial practices were undermining new-product development and employee commitment. The process exposed some barriers to effectiveness: unclear strategy and priorities, a senior team that was trying to manage new-product development initiatives from the top but lacked the necessary information, and a siloed organization that hindered coordination.
MEPD created cross-functional new-product development teams headed by leaders from marketing—a major departure from the structure that had blocked teamwork in the past. Roles and responsibilities were changed accordingly. For instance, senior management held the teams accountable through quarterly reviews at which they had to describe their progress in developing products and also report on their own effectiveness and any problems in collaboration among functional departments.
This ongoing assessment helped sustain behavioral change. Learning and development for both senior leaders and team members came in the form of hands-on coaching and process consultation. An internal organizational development consultant provided guidance as senior leaders conducted the reviews. Team members immediately embraced their new roles, which gave them a feeling of ownership and investment.