Strategic HR

Monika Picker: Leadership Training and Team-building – Are They a Waste of Time, Money and Energy?!

It happened many times. You come back to your office after an exciting and motivational leadership training program. You’re full of grand expectations and fresh ideas… but then, nothing happens! Why not?

Everything was so clear and bright – you had developed the perfect vision, you were filled with your unique mission, you had analyzed your leadership style, values and then… It’s like coming home from a business trip to New York to find your Lego blocks laid out in front of you with the command to build a sky-scraper.

Mission impossible!

So, what went wrong? Why do we pay for leadership training that does not work and that doesn’t provide sustainable results? Are companies victims of a great “training robbery”?

No sustainable results – Why?

One reason is that training is focused on training leaders to lead the people, rather than training them to understand, build and lead a system. What do we mean by that? Often, training is focused on having an individual learn something he or she does not currently know about themselves.

There is no focus on the system in which the individual has to create an impact. How do we understand a “system“? There are natural and man-made systems but both are a combination of interrelated and interdependent parts that are influenced by their environment.

Changing one part of the system usually has an impact on other parts and ergo the entire system.

The quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate. (C.O. Scharmer)

For systems which are self-learning and self-adapting, positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment and how well the key players understand the system and help to actively build it. This so-called “Systemic approach“ is not entirely new.

Could a result of this be, that we should think more about how to build learning systems and a little bit less how to develop individual leaders?

The second reason leadership training is not always effective is that sometimes the training doesn’t have enough high quality content – it is focused more on having fun together. Not enough value is gained that participants can bring to their office environment.

There was no alignment with corporate values and corporate strategy. You may have crashed cars, had nice beers, organized or consumed a sporting event and worked on personal relationships. But there was no real practical impact you could bring to your office to change your leadership style or to help address daily challenges.

Maybe, having one too many beers, you even said things that did not lead to team building but rather to team breaking. Thus, it was not a sustainable investment, neither for the paying company nor for the participants who invested valuable time and energy.

In another scenario, maybe it wasn’t only an exercise in having fun. Maybe everyone tried really hard. Your trainer introduced the latest leadership models to you, and you and your peers listened carefully.

But ultimately you did not see a way to adapt these great theories into your company environment when returning to the office. Back to point one, it was ‘nice to have’ but with little practical value. At the end of the day there is no return on investment and no return on the energy and time spent.

A third reason for the lack of effectiveness – the training does not facilitate organizational change. Leadership training programs often do not facilitate organizational change because when employees return from training they cannot apply their new knowledge and skills.

Similar to the first reason, individuals have no power to change the system surrounding them. Instead, the system acts as a constraint and is conservative when it comes to implementing new ideas.

A training participant might feel like a fish that was taught to swim in the big blue ocean, but is then placed in a small aquarium and expected to be a master swimmer.

We can give many more reasons – but now let’s focus on some solutions.

What could be done better?

One avenue for improvement is to train leaders to understand, build and lead systems. In each system there are defined roles, responsibilities and relationships that have a strong impact on people’s behavior and mindset. This is why employers, leaders, teams and individuals have to understand where their place in the system is, as well as their space and frame.

With that in mind, key people in the company need a profound understanding of the strategy, and more than that, they need a profound understanding of the purpose of the company and a clear understanding of their impact and contributions to its success.

There are a number of important questions to ask.

  • What is the purpose of our company?
  • What are the drivers of our success and how do they influence our decisions, our customer service, and our personal company behavior?
  • Where do we have unproductive patterns in our teamwork or personal work style?
  • What is our reason for being?

These questions, formulated by business guru Peter Drucker, are the questions that have to influence procedures, decisions and thinking in a company.

Only the purpose for being legitimizes our actions, why this company exists! Peter Drucker’s wisdom is applicable and trend-setting even today.

Another important parameter to develop is having an “enabling“ space for learning, learning and again learning, based on trust. Something like a “psychologically safe“ climate where employees feel free to exchange ideas and speak up. This is essential for achieving change in a company.

What we face today has come to be known as a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Our companies are built on structures, processes and do’s and don’t’s – comparable to a machine. They are not yet agile units that function like a school of fish or a flock of birds, floating and adapting to the needs of the business today. But does it make sense in this VUCA world to “learn“ leadership? After all, isn’t it just charisma, special gifts of nature, a stroke of luck?

Enabling space and peer to peer learning

There are several things to consider here. If we want leadership training to succeed, we have to begin sooner. Companies have to create a learning atmosphere, an enabling space, and they should not leave the leaders alone.

Individually designed learning with the support of peers in peer groups makes a lot of sense…you can also call them Learning Buddies. Learning does not mean to repeat what an authority says but asking and reflecting until you understand. Face-to-face exchanges between peers mean more than sharing a beer.

Trust and effective communication

We are human beings and we need human support. No robot or machine can communicate like a human being. You, as a company have to find out what the individual leader has to learn – it’s even better when the leader themselves find out their area of learning.

And then you have to accompany them and surround them with a group of others who are willing to enable learning. As Peter Senge describes in his book “The 5th Discipline“. It is the so called Learning Organization that will be agile to successfully adapt to the future.

Goal and aim of the Learning Organization

And what is the focus of this learning? Self-reflection, insights, learning how to give feedback. Developing a constructive and flexible give-and-take feedback culture in the company, open to learning experiences, where mistakes are allowed and are even seen as an opportunity to learn and improve.

To root out unproductive patterns in communication and behavior.

Develop a productive corporate culture

This is hard and exhausting work, like climbing a mountain in a team. We have to ask ourselves – is this even possible in an environment where employees will use any opportunity to profile themselves against a competitor colleague?

It’s unlikely. This is a question of what kind of corporate culture we are willing to accept – one that’s open and productive or one that’s unhealthy and destructive.

Leadership training can be successful, with a good return on investment. But it is not only the individual leader that has to learn.

A well-designed teambuilding program, complemented by additional business coaching, can support the learning process in a very productive way.

It is the entire organization that has to understand that in a VUCA world only agile companies will survive. Will it be the flexible David or the willing to learn Goliath?

Monika Picker

Executive Coach PCC, ALATHEIA

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