Behavioural change is the holy grail of leadership development

Whether you are trying to become a better leader yourself or you are helping others to become better leaders (through designing, facilitating or delivering leadership development programs) the only thing that really matters is whether developmental activities will result in behavioural change – are leaders doing new things, taking new actions, behaving differently…that are having positive impacts as a result of leadership development?  If not then you’re probably wasting time and money!

In this context, and it might sound strange, leadership development is not fundamentally about gaining new knowledge about leadership, generating insights about yourself, having new experiences etc. These are not unimportant, but it is critical to understand that they are means to an end…where the end game is leaders doing new things – more of, differently, consistently, better!

So what? It fundamentally means any leadership development activities must be tested against whether they will likely achieve sustainable behavioural change or not.

Let me provide a basic and simple framework to think about this:

All leaders work within a context – an organisation, the people within it, the nature of the work, the culture etc. Within their specific context individual leaders, have a mindset and range of beliefs, often at the unconscious level, as well as a set of skills and knowledge which drive their day-to-day leadership actions and behaviours.  These actions and behaviours have a direct impact on the people they lead – their motivations, energy, mood, creativity and discretionary effort – which ultimately influence business outcomes, such as productivity, customer service, quality of outputs etc.  It is only a simple framework that does not attempt to explain all the factors that are at play, however most literature and leadership development interventions are based on the premise that this type of causal relationship exists.

My challenge is this – when leadership development programs are being designed or when individuals are undertaking some self-development activities, is the primary focus on leaders making sustainable changes in behaviours and actions that have positive impacts on the people they lead to achieve improved business outcomes?

So, rather than discussing this at a conceptual level, it might be useful to reflect on a couple of short stories of leaders with whom I have recently worked who made demonstrable behavioural changes and reflect on some themes emerging from their development experience.

Story #1: Prioritising people over task

A new, young manager in her 20s responsible for over 50 field staff, including many part-timers and older men – a tough gig for a first-time leader! She reflected that her ‘light bulb moment’ was when she realised that “my job is actually about supporting the people in my team, not the paperwork or stuff like that.  It has been a real mindset shift; a new identity almost.”  She has now prioritised relationships and people over tasks – for example she now puts her administrative tasks to one side between 4.00 – 5.00pm each day to be ‘present and available’ when her staff come in from the field and they just want to debrief on their day.  Previously she just used to get angry and frustrated about them interrupting her!

Story#2: Through changing ourselves we can change others

A mature woman leading a couple of IT-related teams, including some ‘difficult technicians’ that are remotely located and were often disengaged in team meetings. She made a 180-degree shift over a few months.  She described herself as a ‘task-focussed fixer’ – the only time she came out of her office was to fix something that was wrong.  But she knew something had to change – her confidence was being tested and team performance needed to improve.  She realised that she needed to get out of her office and get to know her people better.  She made this change quickly – talking to people about what is happening for them, not solely work issues; establishing a wall of gratitude; starting meetings with a discussion of positive achievements.  She saw significant changes in the mood of the team and improvements in productivity.  One of her key reflections was that “it is interesting to see that through changing ourselves we can also change others”.

Story#3: Pushing people = caring for them

A leader of a small team working in a politically sensitive area in local government that was closely monitored and reactive to operational pressures. She was an experienced manager that cared strongly for her staff.  For her, caring about people = not overloading them with work and always being available for them.  She came to understand, however, this was detrimental to both her (in terms of stress) and the growth and development of her staff.  Her moment of insight was re-defining what caring for her staff meant.  She realised that pushing them – giving them challenges, growing their skills and experience, holding them accountable – was actually caring for them.  Or worse, not pushing them = not caring for them.  This significant mind-set shift drove her to undertake different behaviours such as setting higher delivery expectations for her staff and allowing herself to not be in the office all the time.  She started to see her people rise to the challenge while making her own workload more manageable.

Story #4: Moving from Chief Technician to Leader

A Chief Financial Officer in his late 50s who fits the stereotype of an accountant with a natural inclination to focus on the technical aspects of the role rather than on leading his people. He did, however, want to become a better leader – there were expectations of a new CEO and he was also concerned about the quality of the output from his senior staff. In the past he would have typically questioned their competence and motivation, however he began to wonder how he might have been contributing to the problem – not making it clear what high quality looks like; not understanding them as individuals and what ‘makes them tick’; how he assigns tasks; and not disclosing more of himself.  He’s now found himself excited and energized about playing more of a coaching and mentoring role late in his career – building more personal relationships with his team, giving and receiving feedback on a more regular basis, recognizing staff achievements, showing interest in staff welfare and encouraging new ideas.  He’s seeing higher levels of enthusiasm in some of his key staff and is now viewed by those staff as ‘a completely different person, much more relaxed’.

These are inspiring stories, but how did they make these shifts? Was it a training course, was it through 360-degree feedback, was it through one-on-one coaching?

I could tell you a hundred more such stories – all different in when and how they came about and the actions and impacts that followed. However, aside from each of these individuals being sufficiently vulnerable and open to the learning process, they all worked through exactly the same process to develop their leadership practice.

So what did they do?  Either working individually or with a peer support group over a six month period they:

  1. Developed their own individual ‘model of people leadership’ – articulating their beliefs about the conditions under which they believe people will perform at their best and the behaviours/actions they would ideally consistently undertake to create those conditions.
  2. Reflected on their strengths and areas for improvement in executing their model.
  3. Tested their thinking with their staff and others to get feedback on their model and perceptions of their behaviours and actions in practice.
  4. Developed an action plan that identified specific behaviours and actions they will undertake to improve leadership of their people.
  5. Implemented their action plan.
  6. Continuously reflected and learned from their experience.

So, looking back over those stories and reflecting on the process they worked through, a couple of key points emerge that are worth noting in the context of leadership development:

  • Most significant changes resulted from a shift in mindset and challenging of their beliefs that drove their behaviours and actions. In most cases it had very little to do with skills and knowledge development. The great challenge in leadership development is how you get that shift in mindset – you’re never quite sure if and when it is going to happen. However design of leadership development activities must be tested against the question – do we genuinely believe these activities will lead to a shift in mindset?
  • An integrated development process over a period of time is more likely to create those moments of insight that create a shift in behaviour. As mentioned above, you are never quite sure when something will click for an individual. A one-off training event or 360-degree feedback session are less likely to deliver sustainable behavioural change than a process over time that allows for reflection and workplace experimentation.
  • Behavioural change is more likely when development activities are highly relevant to their situation and provide them with significant control/choice over their approach to leadership, areas they choose to work on and their approach to some of the development activities.

It is easy to become fascinated by the latest trends or interventions in leadership development, however it is critical to understand that these are merely means to an end, with that end being sustainable behavioural change. The most important question to ask yourself is – will this leadership development activity or combination of activities in this context most likely lead to sustainable behavioural change of leaders that will positively impact their people and lead to improved business outcomes? While I am, of course, biased by my own experiences I’m not sure anything is more effective than leaders taking responsibility for doing the hard graft of articulating their own beliefs about leadership, deeply reflecting on their own practice and experimenting with new behaviours in their workplace.

The results speak for themselves.

If you’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the process described above, click here to download a full case study article.