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strategy and business
 / Fall 2004 / Issue 36(originally published by Booz & Company)


Leadership Is a Contact Sport: The "Follow-up Factor" in Management Development

Exhibits 1 to 5, below, show the results among the first five companies, which, despite their different leadership development programs, used the same measurement methodology. This apples-to-apples comparison shows strong correlations across all five companies between the degree of follow-up and the perceived change in leadership effectiveness.

In the exhibits, “perceived change” refers to the respondents’ perception of their co-worker’s change in leadership effectiveness; for example, a rating of “+3” would indicate that the co-worker was seen as becoming a much more effective leader; a rating of “0” would indicate no change in leadership effectiveness. “Percent” refers to the percentage of survey respondents grouped around a given rating; for example, in Exhibit 1, between 30 and 42 percent of respondents gave a “0” rating — that is, they saw no change — to leaders who “did no follow-up.”

Leadership, it’s clear from this research, is a relationship. And the most important participants in this relationship are not the coach and the “coachee.” They are the leader and the colleague.

Most of the leaders in this study work in knowledge environments — in companies where the value of the product or service derives less and less from manufacturing scale and, to use Peter Drucker’s formulation, more and more from the processing and creation of information to define and solve problems. In discussing leadership with knowledge workers, Professor Drucker has said, “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” Our studies show that leaders who regularly ask for input are seen as increasing in effectiveness. Leaders who don’t follow up are not necessarily bad leaders; they are just not seen as getting better.

Ask and Receive
In a way, our work reinforces a key learning from the Hawthorne studies. These classic observations of factory workers at suburban Chicago’s Western Electric Hawthorne Works, which Harvard professor Elton Mayo made nearly 80 years ago, showed that productivity tended to increase when workers perceived leadership interest and involvement in their work, as evidenced by purposeful change in the workplace environment. Our studies show that when co-workers are involved in leadership development, the leaders they are helping tend to become more effective. Leaders who ask for input and then follow up to see if progress is being made are seen as people who care. Co-workers might well infer that leaders who don’t respond to feedback must not care very much.

Historically, a great deal of leadership development has focused on the importance of an event. This event could be a training program, a motivational speech, or an offsite executive meeting. The experience of the eight companies we studied indicates that real leadership development involves a process that occurs over time, not an inspiration or transformation that occurs in a meeting.

Physical exercise provides a useful analogy. Imagine having out-of-shape people sit in a room and listen to a speech on the importance of exercising, then watch some tapes on how to exercise, and perhaps practice exercising. Would you ever wonder why these people were still unfit a year later? The source of physical fitness is not understanding the theory of working out; it is engaging in exercise. As Arnold Schwarzenegger has said, “Nobody ever got muscles by watching me work out!” So, too, with leadership development. As Professor Drucker, Dr. Hersey, and Dr. Blanchard have pointed out, leadership involves a reliance on other co-workers to achieve objectives. Who better than these same co-workers to help the leader increase effectiveness?

Indeed, the executive coach is, in many ways, like a personal trainer. The trainer’s role is to “remind” the person being trained to do what he or she knows should be done. Good personal trainers spend far more time on execution than on theory. The same seems to be true for leadership development. Most leaders already know what to do. They have read the same books and listened to the same gurus giving the same speeches. Hence, our core conclusion from this research: For most leaders, the great challenge is not understanding the practice of leadership: It is practicing their understanding of leadership.

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  1. Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer, “My Coach and I,” s+b, Summer 2003; Click here. 
  2. Elizabeth Thach, “The Impact of Executive Coaching and 360 Feedback on Leadership Effectiveness,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002; Click here. 
  3. Marshall Goldsmith, “Ask, Learn, Follow Up, and Grow,” in The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the Next Era, edited by Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard (Peter Drucker Foundation and Jossey-Bass, 1996)
  4. Linda Sharkey, “Leveraging HR: How to Develop Leaders in Real Time,” in Human Resources in the 21st Century, edited by Marc Effron, Robert Gandossy, and Marshall Goldsmith (John Wiley & Sons, 2003)
  5. Diane Anderson, Brian Underhill, and Robert Silva, “The Agilent APEX Case Study,” in Best Practices in Leadership Development — 2004, edited by Dave Ulrich, Louis Carter, and Marshall Goldsmith (Best Practices Publications, forthcoming 2004)
  6. Marshall Goldsmith, Cathy L. Greenberg, Alastair Robertson, and Maya Hu-Chan, Global Leadership: The Next Generation (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2003)
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