Reaching the top of an organization doesn’t necessarily mean someone is prepared and skilled for the job. Executives may not be ready for the high-level strategic leadership required to be a member of the C-suite or a vice president — which is where executive development programs come in. In fact, research by Training Industry has found that providing training to senior leaders has, in the executives’ own opinion, a significant impact on their ability and desire to lead.
What do learning and development leaders need to know about executive leadership and the training required for senior leaders to be successful? Here’s an overview.
The Changing Nature of Executive Leadership
“The business landscape has been impacted by issues like digital transformation, political changes, the intergenerational workplace, gender roles and economic shifts — and that’s only to name a few,” says Joe Britto, mindset and management consultant at Outback Team Building & Training.
As a result, the demands on executive leaders have shifted. Katherine LaVelle, managing director of Accenture Strategy, says, “Pressures are compounding on the C-suite like never before. Leaders across all industries and geographies are being challenged to solve complex business problems in new ways, with different constituents, at a new pace and scale, and with bigger consequences than ever before for getting it wrong.”
In response to these changes, a recent Accenture report shares, executives must develop a “whole-brain” approach to leadership. LaVelle, one of the authors of the report, says whole-brain leadership means “a combined focus on what we have traditionally thought of as ‘left’ (scientific) brain skills — such as critical reasoning, decision-making and results-orientation — with ‘right’ (creative) brain skills — such as empathy, innovation and intuition.” The research found that organizations whose C-suite used this type of leadership “yield better financial outcomes than those that don’t,” she adds, including 22% higher revenue growth and 34% higher profitability growth. Fortunately, over half of the organizations Accenture surveyed are working on reskilling their C-suite.
In addition, according to executive coach Michael Toebe, with social media (and traditional media) as well as employees putting senior leaders’ communication, behavior and decision-making under more scrutiny than ever before, executives must “consider, plan for and respond with poise and wisdom.” As a result, critical skills for executive leaders include emotional intelligence, problem-solving, assertiveness, overcoming blind spots, crisis communications and crisis management, and understanding risk.
Abhi Lokesh, CEO and co-founder of Fracture, agrees, saying, “In today’s incredibly competitive job market … if executive leadership doesn’t walk the walk, employees will leave and move on to a company whose values more closely align with their own.”
Part of what the media, consumers and employees are looking for is inclusive leadership and emotional intelligence, says Dr. Vince Repaci, a senior coach at LOVR Atlantic. “This has led to the growth of better-rounded and better-informed executive [leaders who] are skilled at not only formulating the vision but bringing the organization on board with it.” That’s why, he says, senior leaders need “the old guard of skills, including strategic thinking, leadership and communication but [also] the ability to plan and deliberately shape culture and high-level engagement skills.”
Similarly, says Eric Frazer, Psy.D., a consultant and an associate professor at Yale University, “innovative companies recognize that they need to impart not only technical skills but also core psychological competencies” early on in order to have effective executives down the line. He believes that perhaps the most important of those psychological competencies is curiosity, which “has been proven over time to be a top hallmark personality feature of successful leaders.” Others are “empathy, grit, willingness to be a minority of one, emotional regulation, deep listening, perspective-taking and positive wellness habits.”
Will Foussier, CEO of AceUp, stresses the importance of agile leadership to be able to “motivate diverse, remote teams to take on the challenges of rapid change [and] to lead change.” Agile leadership consists of three core competencies, he adds: adaptability, resilience, and interpersonal communication and relationship management.
The bottom line? “Today’s leader needs to be much more than a functional leader,” says Jason Richmond, author of the new book “Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth” and founder and chief culture officer of Ideal Outcomes, Inc. “Effective leaders need to be change agents. They need to be able to inspire a shared vision and rally employees behind that decision. They also need to have a big-picture perspective and understand how decisions they make for their own teams have a spider web effect on the organization as a whole.” To be effective, he adds, senior leaders need communication, systems thinking, empathy and collaboration skills.
Delivering Executive Leadership Training
Unfortunately, Richmond says, those skills are not often taught in business school. Organizations must step up to fill the gap, and he recommends “a combination of action learning (where a real-life business problem is addressed and ‘just-in-time’ skills training is brought in), stretch assignments, rotation assignments (to gain deeper understanding of their colleagues’ worlds), and stretch assignments supported by a mentor or executive coach.”
“Practice makes perfect,” says Lokesh, and Toebe agrees that the best way for executives to develop the skills they need to lead successfully “is to practice them consistently,” with the support and feedback of a coach. Successful people, he believes, “realize they can’t accomplish their objectives without assistance, and they seek out coaches to guide them and help them develop skills, perfect them and navigate them through difficult challenges.”
Frazer echoes the importance of coaching, as well as mentoring, and adds that “personalized learning has evolved beyond standard training seminars and university business school programs to leverage a combination of on-demand learning content and strategies that can provide learning opportunities on multiple platforms in multiple media.” Along those lines, Jonathan Kirschner, founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting, says that “learning needs to be personal, bite-sized and highly contextualized” — which new and more traditional media can support through microlearning, video and other formats.
When providing those opportunities for practice, Repaci says, “create low-consequence activities” for executives to practice the skills that, in reality, have more significant impacts on the organization and its people. Experiential learning as well as “small experimental projects” meet this need well, he adds, and Training Industry’s research found that best-in-class organizations are twice as likely to use experiential learning to train their senior leaders.
Britto argues that focusing on skills is the wrong lens when it comes to executive leadership development. “Executives hold senior roles because they have a lot of experience,” he says. “Ask yourself this: do models, formulas, and techniques help executives grow the flexibility to navigate a fast-changing business landscape?” He believes that rather than providing skills training, organizations should “help executives grow a leadership mindset that helps them develop flexibility.”
Rebecca Zucker, partner at Next Step Partners, emphasizes the shift in modern leadership development programs from “horizontal development” (which focuses on skills and competencies) to “vertical development” (which focuses on leaders as people). Indeed, Training Industry’s research found that effective executive leadership development programs not only build skills but may also improve learners’ abilities to balance their personal and professional lives and their engagement with their jobs.
“In today’s hyperconnected, flat organization,” says Kirschner, “successful executives lead through influence.” They must have both technical knowledge and skills and the emotional intelligence to lead people and an organization in a dynamic, constantly changing world. By providing your executives with a blend of coaching and formal training programs, you can help them build the skills they need to be effective influencers and impactful leaders.