Beyond the basic finding — that follow-up matters — several other conclusions arise from our research. For example, the eight-program study indicates that the follow-up factor correlates with improved leadership effectiveness among both U.S. and non-U.S. executives.
As companies globalize, many executives have begun to wrestle with issues of cultural differences among their executives and employees. Recent research involving high-potential leaders from around the world has shown that cross-cultural understanding is seen as a key to effectiveness for the global leader. (See, for example, Marshall Goldsmith et al., Global Leadership: The Next Generation, Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2003.)
Our study addressed this issue as it affects leadership development programs. Nearly 10,000 of the respondents in the eight companies whose programs we reviewed — almost 12 percent of our mini-survey sample — were located outside the United States. We found that the degree of follow-up was as critical to changing perceived leadership effectiveness internationally as it was domestically. This was true for both training and coaching initiatives.
At Johnson & Johnson, there were almost no differences in scores among participants in Europe, Latin America, and North America. The group seen as improving the most was in Asia. In analyzing the findings, J&J determined that the higher scores in Asia were more a function of dedicated local management than of cultural differences, again supporting the correlation between a caring, contact-rich leadership and its perceived effectiveness.
That follow-up works globally contravenes assumptions that different cultures will have differing levels of receptiveness to intimate conversations about workplace behaviors. But the universality of the follow-up principle doesn’t imply universality in its application. Leaders learn from the people in their own environment, particularly in a cross-cultural context. Indeed, research by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., has shown that “encouraging feedback” and “learning from those around us” are both central to success for leaders in cross-cultural environments. Companies with successful leadership development programs encourage executives to adapt the universal principle of follow-up and the frequency of such conversations to fit the unique requirements of the culture in which they working. Despite other cultural differences, there seems to be no country in the world where co-workers think, “I love it when you ask me for my feedback and then ignore me.”
Inside and Outside
Interaction between the developing leader and his or her colleagues is not the sole connection that counts. Also vital is the contact between the leader and the coach. Our third major finding concerns that relationship: Both internal and external coaches can make a positive difference.
One reason coaching can be so effective is that it may inspire leaders to follow up with their people. Agilent Technologies, for one, found a strong positive correlation between the number of times the coach followed up with the client and the number of times the client followed up with co-workers.
The coach, however, does not have to be part of the company. This conclusion was readily apparent when we compared the two companies most distinct in the composition of their coaching corps. Agilent used only external coaches. GE Capital, by contrast, used only internal coaches from human resources. Yet both approaches produced very positive long-term increases in perceived leadership effectiveness.
Given the apparent ease of accessibility to internal coaches, firms might naturally use this finding to justify “going inside.” But there are at least three important variables to consider in determining whether to use an internal HR coach: time, credibility, and confidentiality.
In many organizations, internal coaches are not given the time they need for ongoing interaction with the people they are coaching. In some cases, they may not seem as credible as trained development experts. In other cases, especially those that involve human resources personnel filling multiple roles, there may appear to be a conflict of interest between a professional’s responsibilities as coach and as evaluator. If these perceptions exist, then external coaches may well be preferable to internal coaches.