Put Leadership Training on the Front Burner

When organizations worldwide took belt-tightening measures after the recession officially began in December 2007, training in general was on the chopping block—and along with it went leadership training. In a 2008 study conducted by learning service firm Expertus, 48 percent of the 84 corporate and government training professionals surveyed reported they were slashing their 2009 training budgets. That was up from 41 percent the previous year.

As the recession progressed, organizations continued cutting these programs. A 2009 article in The National Law Journal noted: "Leadership consultants said that firms are reducing leadership training, scaling back earlier training commitments."

Now that the economy is showing signs of strength, it's time to bring back leadership training.

Keeping Weeds in Check

A protracted lack of training is much like a neglected garden; ultimately, weeds stifle and choke organizational growth. Over the past three years, job insecurity and economic uncertainty have dampened morale. Add to that the lack of leadership training and cohesive guidance from top management, and you have a double drain on productivity.

During lean times, managers have been in crisis mode, not taking the time to motivate or follow the corporate vision, but rather maintaining the status quo instead. People skills have fallen to last place on the priority list, and the company vision broadcast in 2006 is stated nowhere but on some dusty rolled-up poster.

Now imagine how a new leadership training program, even a modest one, can provide much-needed manicuring to the untended garden. Your chief executive—the landscape architect—should initiate the effort via a vision of growth and innovation and ultimately, greater profits.

When Results Can Be Immediate

Organizations may have cut funds for training, but they may not be able to afford putting it off forever. Perhaps the myth still exists that leadership training is a costly, time-consuming measure with only long-term gain—when in fact, relatively low-cost measures can reap immediate results.

For example, you could give a one-day workshop on strategic growth initiatives, motivating staff through enhanced communications or improving skills for virtual-team leadership. Sure, this will mean time spent planning the workshop and perhaps money invested in hiring an outside facilitator, but it could contribute to the bottom line in hours. A motivated salesperson, invigorated by a sales manager's genuine public praise one morning, can easily precipitate a sales spike that afternoon.

Other good subject matter for leadership training sessions includes: implementing career pathing for employees; setting objectives and expectations and monitoring them among staff; delegating tasks to others; team building and creating a sense of community; mentoring and helping teams maximize their potential; and establishing alignment with business and personal goals.

These days, businesses have a segment of employees inspired to work only because they want to keep their jobs. But as employment improves, survival won't be enough to compel them to leap out of bed in the morning.

A Key to Invigorating Employees

Leaders must know how to motivate their teams to work for mutual success and the larger success of the company. Even with the economy still faltering, more progressive companies are considering restarting leadership training. They recognize it as a wise investment in creating an invigorated workforce.

Researchers from Harvard and McGill universities carried out a six-year global study of companies that sought improved working conditions at all levels of their business and managed to be profitable at the same time. The researchers found that these companies—ranging in size from small outfits of 27 employees to Fortune 50 corporations of 126,000—knew how to support leadership at every level and how to listen to employees. One company, Costco, found that developing the skills and talent of its employees helped recruitment and improved the long-term quality of management.

Managers must include interpersonal intelligence in their leadership tool kit. They must demonstrate that they are trustworthy and transparent. In numerous studies conducted by our own firm, the "trust gap" between the boss and employee is clearly evident. But the trust gap can be reset.

You can initiate the charge for leadership training in your company. Components of such a program may include the following:

Connecting with staff. Managers need good communication and emotional-intelligence skills—sensitivity to people's feelings and the ability to work through those feelings. Whereas many managers will do anything to avoid conflict, emotionally intelligent ones thrive on confronting situations and resolving them.

Making managers better coaches and mentors. Leaders should be trained by senior management and HR on how to guide employees in their career development. Managers should carefully review policy manuals and uphold expected "good character" standards and serve as role models for other employees. That also means being open to suggestions and genuinely appreciating diverse opinions.

Listening and giving feedback. When designing a training program, solicit managerial input as much as possible. Ask frontline employees for their insights on what kind of corporate learning would make the company more competitive, for example. Customer-facing employees possess a treasure trove of data that is rarely mined sufficiently. If a client expresses interest in a modification to a product or service—but your representative feels like a cog in a wheel who is too junior to act on such "high level" input—it can mean lost revenue opportunities. In one study our firm commissioned, 93 percent of employees said that job satisfaction improves when managers are receptive to new ideas and approaches.

Having a clear vision. Make sure leaders understand the corporate vision and can enlighten employees about it. If the company wants to focus on its hometown roots instead of its global capabilities, for example, leadership training should outline that plan. If the company's mission is stated clearly and often, it will help guide employees in their thinking and create a sense of purpose.

Understanding how parts make up the whole. Leaders need to learn how to communicate the company's big ideas and objectives to workers and to commend individuals for their contributions toward goals. For example, a manager might say, "Your data mining project is really helping to increase sales, because we can now target users with advertising better than ever before." By keeping employees in the loop, leaders constantly uplift and engage staff.

Companies that weed out bad practices and nourish new leaders will see renewed growth, yielding a flourishing landscape of profits.

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