Achieving Higher Returns On Your Leadership Development Spend


Afsheen Ismail-Wey – CEO & Leadership Advisor at The Phoenix Coaching Co., Executive Program Faculty, Diversity Advocate, Coach, Traveller.

In 2020, organizations worldwide spent approximately $357 billion on corporate training, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Some estimates suggest that 25% of total training spend goes to leadership development. However, research indicates that many of these leadership programs are deemed ineffective in preparing leaders for future challenges.

A majority of executives believe that their company’s leadership programs do not adequately equip leaders with the necessary skills for the future. Specifically, in a survey carried out by McKinsey among 500 executives, only 11% of executives felt that their organization’s leadership programs are successful.

Outdated Leadership Development

To achieve higher returns on investment in leadership, organizations need to overcome outdated practices. One of the main practices that must be challenged is the adoption of generic approaches to leadership development that do not consider the following:

• Each individual leader’s unique development stage

• The organization’s current context/culture

• The external environment that influences the organization

Failing to incorporate all of the above while replicating generic training content means training cannot build specific skills required for future leadership.

The Leadership Life Cycle

An approach to development that accounts for all of the above, designed by my company, The Phoenix Coaching Co., and validated by HR Leaders at Fortune 500 companies, recognizes four key moments in a leader’s life cycle where interventions are most required and where support should be tailored. These stages are Arrive In Role, Perform In Role, Develop In Role and Thrive In Role.

By understanding where each leader is in the four key stages, and considering the organization’s unique internal and external context, organizations can offer leaders impactful and relevant support.

The stages, and the reason relevant interventions in these stages matter, are as follows.

Stage 1: Arrive In Role

For years we’ve been hearing about how critical the moment of arrival is for a new leader’s development. Whether it’s the first 90 hours, the first 90 days or the first 18 months—these “firsts” are seen as key moments that define a leader’s future success in their role. And that’s crucial because the cost of failure can be as high as 213% of salary at the C-suite level.

However, that’s not the only reason organizations need to pay attention at this stage. Times have changed, and leaders arriving in roles expect more from their companies. In the current environment, leaders are ready to make brave choices, whether to stay or to leave, in order to work in an environment that meets their expectations: more meaningful work, more focus on well-being and more alignment with their values. And effective support of leaders at this stage drives engagement and retention. Check out Forbes‘s “The New ’90-Day Wonders'” article (subscription required) to learn more.

Stage 2: Perform In Role (Through Teams And Networks)

Tomes have been written about the first 90 days of a leader’s role. However, very little is said of intentional and impactful transitions beyond the first 90 days—that moment when leaders stop saying “I’m new here, so I’m wondering…” and begin to be seen by others as a permanent fixture. This stage is crucial, complex and covers a much broader timeline.

A leader responsible for lofty goals like “doubling the business,” “fostering innovation cultures,” “building high-performing, diverse leadership teams,” etc., will only succeed through the individuals and teams (whether their own or others) whose talents are unleashed and amplified through working with her.

Stage 3: Develop In Role

While leaders are doing the work of Arriving In Role and Performing In Role, they’re also recognizing their strengths and development areas in their current role and their needs for development for their desired next role.

And it doesn’t stop there. The business environment changes quickly, and at any given time there are a whole host of new skills on the horizon that leaders need to master just to keep up with the latest evolution in leadership.

Stage 4: Thrive In Role (Beyond Steady State)

Finally, as we’ve all learned over the past three years especially, leaders need to be prepared for the latest developments in the external and internal environment that might influence their area of responsibility and business results at short notice.

At this point, interventions that amplify leadership confidence to adapt and make informed and effective decisions, despite headwinds and deeply rooted norms, ensure empowered leadership responses in untested waters.

Final Thoughts

It’s crucial to address leadership development needs across each of these stages in order to begin doing development that has greater returns than we’ve seen so far. And to do it effectively, which I believe means incorporating a 70/20/10 approach by including training, coaching/mentoring and on-the-job strategic support, we need better-informed leadership development champions within organizations and leadership development providers outside organizations.

The role of leadership is experiencing a seismic shift—from policing or directing the organization’s performance in areas of compliance or sales targets, through inspiring vision and purpose, to now taking a more vocal, visible and influential stand toward social and ethical concerns that are shared by consumers and employees.

The question we need to ask ourselves as champions and providers is, Are we taking enough of a stand in developing leaders, for the future of leadership? Imagine a world in which we aren’t.

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