We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders

Harvard Business Review

Years ago, I was involved with a firm that experimented with teaching leadership principles to elementary school children. We were introducing the same skills to 3rd and 4th graders that we teach managers in large corporations. These nine- and ten-year-olds had no trouble understanding such concepts as the importance of preserving self-confidence in your colleagues or the dangers of focusing on personalities. In fact, they lost no time in applying the principles to their parents (who are, after all, their immediate supervisors). I can't help smiling when I think of a 3rd grader informing her parents that they were not focusing on the problem, but only on the person. From this we concluded that it's never too early to teach leadership skills.

I'm not suggesting that fostering leadership skills in the schools is a corporation's responsibility (that's really a subject for another day). But I am arguing that leadership development can be taught at any age — and that companies wait far, far too long to begin. And when I say late, I mean very late.

When I looked back at our database of some 17,000 worldwide leaders participating in our training program, who hailed from companies in virtually every sector throughout the world, I found that their average age was 42. More than half were between 36 and 49. Less than 10% were under 30; less than 5% were under 27.

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But the average age of supervisors in these firms was 33. In fact the typical individual in these companies became a supervisor around age 30 and remained in that role for nine years — that is, until age 39. It follows then, that if they're not entering leadership training programs until they're 42, they are getting no leadership training at all as supervisors. And they're operating within the company untrained, on average, for over a decade.

Practicing anything mildly important, like say skiing or golf, without training is inadvisable. The fact that so many of your managers are practicing leadership without training should alarm you.

Here are three reasons why.

Practicing without training ingrains bad habits. My children and grandchildren learned to ski at early ages. I began when I was 41. They learned the fundamentals early and well. I did not. They didn't pick up any bad habits. I did. Instructors pushed them to move to more difficult slopes while maintaining good form. I took my bad form from slope to slope. As you would suppose, they are much better skiers than I am. While they were taught correctly, I learned my skills willy-nilly — just like all those supervisors left to their own devices until they reached their 40s. Worse, I practiced my questionable skills over and over, ingraining them deeply.

Practice makes perfect only if done correctly. Practicing for hours doesn't automatically create excellent skills. Say, for instance, that, as an aspiring golfer, you go to the driving range and practice by hitting buckets of balls off into the blue. You may leave feeling you've done something to help you improve, but more than likely you will only have practiced whatever swing you came with — good, bad, or indifferent. But say that when you go to the range you take a more deliberate approach. You draw a circle 20 feet in diameter, move back a bit, and proceed to hit balls until 80% land in the circle. Then you move farther back, take a different club, and do the same thing. That is deliberate, focused, and productive practice. Perfect practice makes perfect performance.

Your young supervisors are practicing on the job whether you've trained them or not. Supervisors, are of course, leading people from the first day on the job. And from that day habits are being formed. Attitudes are being created. Management practices begin to coalesce. Would it not be in the organization's and the individuals' best interests to begin that process the moment they're selected for that position?

For as long as I can recall, there have been those who have observed, "With all the money and effort being spent on leadership development programs, why don't we have better leaders?" The answer to that question is obviously complex, but could a part of the answer be that we have simply waited too long to develop these skills? It may be possible to teach old dogs new tricks, but there's no question that the sooner you begin, the easier it is.

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