Don’t Overcomplicate Leadership Development

Elaborately designed program elements do not always improve an offering. To boost impact, make leadership development programs high on substance but low on complexity.

The world is growing more complicated by the second. As Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, said at a 2011 technology conference, humans create as much information every 48 hours as was created between the dawn of civilization and 2003. It’s no wonder simplicity feels increasingly refreshing.

Both philosophers and scientists have extolled the power of simplicity. Plato said: “Style and harmony and grace … depend on simplicity.” Often when people are presented with easy-to-process stimuli — versus complex stimuli — they experience a spike in happiness.

And in the business world, companies that harness the power of simplicity experience powerful returns. For example, Google’s homepage is a white backdrop, a text box and two buttons. Behind it are more than a trillion Web pages.

Simplicity Will Galvanize Leadership Development
According to Andrew Lobo, former Sports Authority vice president of strategy and talent management, “in corporate America and the world over, people think complexity equals intelligence. Therefore, there’s an inherent bias against doing things simply.”

Chief learning officers adopting a simplicity mindset will experience a positive impact on leadership development.

What is a simplicity mindset? In 2012, ad agency creative director Ken Segall wrote in The Guardian that Apple’s success “has been to distill its ideas to their essence. When [Steve] Jobs was not satisfied with the simplicity of … ideas presented to him, he would hit them with ‘the Simple Stick.’” This, Segall said, was a vital component to the company’s success.

Simplicity is valuable for two reasons. First, it increases impact by specifically targeting what’s needed. For instance, if an organization offers 500 Web-based courses, some might impact the business, but many might not. It would be more effective to offer the 10 most effective courses. Second, simplicity helps communicate leadership development’s value. If programs feel confusing to participants, they are more likely to fail.

Here are three ways to simplify leadership development programs and make them more effective.

1. Pare down leadership development strategy to its essential elements. For a leadership development strategy to be successful, executives must understand it.

Are learning leaders explaining the strategy in a simple, compelling way?
As a guideline, consider a strategy’s essential elements: What business needs exist? What impact will efforts have? And why do they matter?

Need: “Nearly half of our workforce is retiring in the next decade,” said Bob Chapman, senior director of talent management at Xcel Energy. Impact: “We must expand and improve our offerings to grow leaders at every level.”

Why it matters: “Our leadership development initiatives are a critical success factor for our business’s continuity.
In the same vein, learning jargon might do more harm than good.

“When we kicked off succession planning, I never used those words because our CEO would react negatively,” Lobo said. “When he came back from a store tour upset that three district manager positions were taking a long time to fill, I said, ‘I can help. Why don’t you, me and the head of stores get together twice a year and we’ll figure out who’s ready and how to help those that aren’t.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s do that.’”

Once learning leaders are communicating clearly to executives, take things a step further and ask: How are we explaining leadership development strategy to our leaders? Is it clear and easy to understand?

Results of an informal December LinkedIn poll indicate that companies haven’t mastered this. Based on a sample of 12 leaders, 58 percent rated their company’s leadership development programs as “somewhat” or “very” complicated.

Lisa Collings, senior director of leadership, development and talent at earth-imaging company DigitalGlobe, said “communication about leadership development must be easy to understand. This helps those with potential and interest to understand what it takes.”

2. Give leaders only what they need. Most car owners don’t care how their engine works; they just want to drive. The same goes for leadership development. Learning leaders must adopt a simplicity mindset to assess and grow the capabilities of leaders in their organization. The behaviors associated with effective leadership are already simple.

“Leaders get things done, provide direction and make people feel better about themselves,” said Kurt Kraiger, department of psychology chair at Colorado State University and chief strategy officer at software firm jobZology.

Following that logic, if the core behaviors associated with successful leaders are consistent, learning leaders must ensure integration across programs. Xcel Energy’s Chapman said: “We can’t tell our first-level leaders one thing, our middle managers another and our senior leaders another.”

For example, if an organization trains mid-level leaders on delegation but does not provide similar skills to front-line leaders, front-line leaders could face a conundrum if they don’t have the capability to downwardly delegate to level their workload as their managers empower them to own more projects.

It’s like how one might feel when cleaning out a garage: a sense of accomplishment and ability to quickly find what’s useful and necessary. A 2011 Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology study illustrates the psychological benefits of de-cluttering, finding that participants who were able to tune out irrelevant information showed clearer thinking and improved memory.

At least quarterly, learning leaders should stack their leadership development strategy against current development activities. For each development program, ask: “Is this measurably contributing to our strategy?”
This may feel politically risky because it may involve cutting sacred cow or legacy programs.

Either way, the message is clear: if a program isn’t executing on the company’s leadership development strategy, cut it. One de-cluttering opportunity can often be found in organizational competency models.

According to talent acquisition firm Korn/Ferry, about three-fourths of companies use them. They are believed to identify unique behaviors required for success. But a 2011 Center for Creative Leadership report questions the value of competency models in identifying unique behaviors.

In lieu of competency models, Lobo suggests defining specific behaviors. “For store managers [at Sports Authority], it’s their ability to reinforce customer service standards in their associates,” he said. “That doesn’t sound cool. It’s long and quite tactical. But we knew these customer service standards worked. We implemented it. Our sales increased within a month.”

Further, don’t inflict leadership development on leaders. Pat Lawrence, senior vice president of human resources at Re/Max, said learning leaders need to make development a choice.

“I used to believe that everyone needed training,” Lawrence said. “I’d bring everyone in. But a week later, we didn’t know whether the session changed anyone’s behavior. We want these things from our employees, but sometimes employees don’t want the same things, and that’s OK. So we asked employees to take control of their own development.”

She said she started by offering a Toastmasters program to anyone who was interested. “We were surprised by the number of people who wanted to join.” Re/Max now offers most classes to everyone, with the requirement that participants have an objective for attending and show behavior change afterwards.

Rose Medical Center in Denver uses a similar approach. The company built a corporate university with 17 leadership development courses. Any employee — from environmental services workers to the CEO — can attend any class. Employees are encouraged to review the university catalog with their manager, but the choice is up to them.

3. Don’t let irrelevant metrics be distracting. Only results matter. For example, many organizations fixate on Kirkpatrick’s levels of learning measurement. Instead, learning leaders must prioritize metrics that indicate both qualitative and quantitative improvements in skills.

For example, the impact of leadership development at Rose Medical Center resulted in the following:

• Patient satisfaction went from middle of the pack to No. 4 out of more than 150 hospitals.
• Voluntary nursing turnover dropped 63 percent, resulting in a savings of about $8 million.
• The hospital was named a “Top 25 Hospital to Work For” by Health Exec News.
• Employee engagement shot to No.1 in the division.

Not everything can be captured by numbers, however. Simplifying leadership development programs also involves monitoring qualitative and anecdotal improvements. “Of course we need to have quantitative analysis,” said Jan Walstrom, chief learning officer at global engineering company CH2M Hill. “But that’s not what I look at. My primary metric is that I listen intently to the conversations that go on. I can tell you whether we’re moving the needle.”

Re/Max’s Lawrence said as a member of the executive management team, she often went into meetings with ridiculous reports on how many people were trained, but she simplified things and got a more positive response. “Now I report what leaders are doing to improve their effectiveness [and] what’s being observed in their performance. That’s what executives want to hear. Numbers don’t always capture outcomes.”

Tasha Eurich is the founder of The Eurich Group, a boutique consultancy, and author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both. She can be reached at
Most car owners don’t care how their engine works; they just want to drive. The same goes for leadership development.