Organizational experts Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard have defined leadership as “working with and through others to achieve objectives.” Many companies are stepping up to the challenge of leadership development and their results are quite tangible. In Leading the Way: Three Truths from the Top Companies for Leaders (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), a study of the top 20 companies for leadership development, Marc Effron and Robert Gandossy show that companies that excel at developing leaders tend to achieve higher long-term profitability.
But it sometimes seems there are as many approaches to leadership development as there are leadership developers. One increasingly popular tool for developing leaders is executive coaching. Hay Group, a human resources consultancy, reported that half of 150 companies surveyed in 2002 said that they had increased their use of executive coaching, and 16 percent reported using coaches for the first time.
Yet even “executive coaching” is a broad category. In reviewing a spate of books on coaching last year, Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer identified at least three types of coaching: behavioral change coaching, personal productivity coaching, and “energy coaching.” (See “My Coach and I,” s+b, Summer 2003.) Our own upcoming book, The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching: 50 Top Executive Coaches Reveal Their Secrets (written with Phil Harkins, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in December 2004), includes discussions about five types of leadership coaching: strategic, organizational change/execution, leadership development, personal/life planning, and behavioral.
Given the increasingly competitive economic environment and the significant human and financial capital expended on leadership development, it is not only fair but necessary for those charged with running companies to ask, “Does any of this work? And if so, how?” What type of developmental activities will have the greatest impact on increasing executives’ effectiveness? How can leaders achieve positive long-term changes in behavior? With admitted self-interest — our work was described in the Crainer–Dearlove article, and is frequently cited in reviews of and articles about leadership coaching — we wanted to see if there were consistent principles of success underlying these different approaches to leadership development.
We reviewed leadership development programs in eight major corporations. Although all eight companies had the same overarching goals — to determine the desired behaviors for leaders in their organizations and to help leaders increase their effectiveness by better aligning actual practices with these desired behaviors — they used different leadership development methodologies: offsite training versus onsite coaching, short duration versus long duration, internal coaches versus external coaches, and traditional classroom-based training versus on-the-job interaction.
Rather than just evaluating “participant happiness” at the end of a program, each of the eight companies measured the participants’ perceived increase in leadership effectiveness over time. “Increased effectiveness” was not determined by the participants in the development effort; it was assessed by preselected co-workers and stakeholders.
Time and again, one variable emerged as central to the achievement of positive long-term change: the participants’ ongoing interaction and follow-up with colleagues. Leaders who discussed their own improvement priorities with their co-workers, and then regularly followed up with these co-workers, showed striking improvement. Leaders who did not have ongoing dialogue with colleagues showed improvement that barely exceeded random chance. This was true whether the leader had an external coach, an internal coach, or no coach. It was also true whether the participants went to a training program for five days, went for one day, or did not attend a training program at all.