How do you develop your senior leaders?

Development for senior leaders has been a challenge for many businesses for a long time. It’s one of the most common areas of focus for Steople clients who want to strengthen and grow their business and their people.

How do we make the time? What are the most critical skills? How do we cater for vastly different areas of focus, interest and existing skill? How can we be sure it will work?

A big challenge can be the fact that leadership is so difficult to operationally define – how many businesses have a clear view of the skills, values and characteristics required to achieve their strategy, and the competences which lead to success as a leader within the organisation? The other issue is working out who the experts are, and who is in a position to effectively teach those skills and adapt to the current and future context to actually enhance performance in an ever-changing environment.

Create space to cultivate a learning mindset.

It’s important to remember that leadership is not something you can ever truly master – the best leaders among us are the ones that pay attention, that learn, that seek to find new and better options for their teams and their business.

The reality is that the most important and probably hardest part of leadership is enabling people to perform at their best, and this is difficult to teach. What really matters is a leader’s ability to identify skills and passions, to create environments where people can do their best work, to help team members learn and grow, to encourage collaboration, innovation, and personal growth, all while navigating change, reaching targets, and dealing with a whole host of other workplace challenges.

High-performing teams are made of people who have mutual accountability and a passion for success, who can work through their challenges and who are willing to do so because they have the opportunity to meet their own personal needs. These are the environments that attract great people, enable them to do great work that helps the organisation progress towards its goals, and makes people want to stay and be a part of it.

But balancing the needs of the individual and team against the needs of the business can often feel like managing opposing forces. How can you teach this? Many struggle with the complexity of it.

So how can you help leaders build the necessary skills?

Drawing on our experience in designing and delivering successful leadership programs across different levels of leadership for a variety of businesses, we prioritise the following to ensure an interesting, engaging, and stretching learning experience for leaders:

  • Make space to build on basic ‘human’ skills such as listening, asking good questions, showing interest in the passions and interests of others, and having empathy for challenges faced. Make time to reflect, discuss, practice, and give these skills the priority they deserve. We all ‘know’ these things are important, but are habitually bad at using them when we are busy, distracted, or feeling demotivated ourselves. This works best when it is consistently and explicitly incorporated across all components of a program rather than as a separate session only, helping to embed behaviour across contexts.
  • Don’t just talk about it, do it. Everyone is an expert when you talk about it. We find both strengths and opportunities for growth when we act. This is where you work out what was easy, what was hard, what was completely forgotten, and where to focus your energy. This may be from activities, collaborative projects, assignments or new learning opportunities with guidance and support.
  • Build leadership in context. The majority of learning really does happen outside the classroom – creating group experiences can be a great catalyst and opportunity for connection, but we all know that transfer back to work is an issue and that most of us developed our skills and strengths through practiced application and the process of trying, failing, getting feedback, refining, and trying again. Models are fine, but how and when do you use them? When should you disregard them? The complexity often comes from the context rather than the skill, making the context the most important learning ground you can have if you want learning to be effective and useful. Enabling teams is no simple task when they are made up of such diverse sets of experience, interest, background, and perspective. Everyone’s appetite for challenge and support, for freedom and for boundaries, for instruction and autonomy, is different and variable.
  • Balance the feel-good experience with opportunities to safely push out of your comfort zone. Both are important. This isn’t about creating more stress and pressure, we already have enough of that. But learning is limited when you only do what you are already good at.
  • Focus on connections: leadership is a collective endeavor, notably harder with diverse and dispersed teams, and yet we learn so much from connecting with others. One of the best things you can do is help people to create relationships where they feel more comfortable to pick up the phone and ask for help, or share an interesting/useful piece of information across real or imagined boundaries, or just get together and share ideas and concerns with people who may have an alternative perspective. Many managers also struggle to truly connect with and understand their team members, so build on opportunities to do this in and around the program where you can.
  • Prioritise considered honesty. Authenticity with respect for others, honesty that doesn’t demotivate, scare, or bring out the desire to defend and protect. Genuine positivity that doesn’t breed cynicism. People find this hard, sometimes terrifying, and often get it wrong. Create a safe space to practice, refine, and focus on the purpose of getting it right.
  • Be inclusive and willing to break the mould. I think most people really don’t know what makes a good leader, and so we end up taking shortcuts, relying on old concepts, stereotypes, biases, and fundamentally flawed assumptions of what a good leader is and does. This to the detriment of everyone. Open mindedness is not just a personality characteristic, it’s a skill you can grow – creating space for innovation, psychological safety, good quality thinking, solution finding, and inclusion.

Sounds easy doesn’t it. Don’t worry, help is at hand – contact Steople today to ensure you get the best business return on your development efforts.