Your Leader Development Program is Built on a Faulty Assumption

By David Livingston

Most leader development programs are based on a single underlying assumption — if my leaders learn what they should do, they will do it. Unfortunately, that assumption is dead wrong.

Most leaders generally know what they should do differently and most understand why they should do it. What leaders truly need is to understand how.

If you want to create a leader development program that drives real employee growth, you need to spend much less time on the what and the why and use those valuable moments to focus on the how. Admittedly, equipping leaders with the how in a classroom setting, whether it be in-person or virtual, is exceedingly difficult, but you have one powerful tool at your disposal – stories.

Stories have the power to inspire, engage, and resonate with people in a way that facts and figures cannot. Stories also create an emotional connection that drives engagement and retention of information, making them an effective tool for leaders to convey their message and teach important lessons.

Below are three ways to build storytelling into your program design to equip your leaders with the how.

Your Leader Development Program - Tip 1

Getting sponsorship for your program from senior leaders is essential and involving them in a component of the program is a proven tactic for increasing visibility and gaining their buy-in. But if you want to maximize their value, steer them away from vision-casting. There is a time for painting an inspirational picture of the future and laying out the high-level strategy on where the organization is going, but the lasting impact will be fleeting at best. Your participants’ excitement will quickly turn to frustration because they still don’t know how to lead their people to achieve that vision.

Instead, encourage your senior leaders to share the stories and lessons that they’ve learned over the course of their careers. These narratives provide contextual models that give participants tangible actions — the how — that they can incorporate back into their own life and workflow.

Your Leader Development Program - Tip 2

The translation of concept to practice has always been a significant challenge for leader development programs. Role play and scenario exercises have long been familiar mechanisms for allowing participants to try new techniques in a controlled setting. These methods do provide some value if they are carefully constructed to be highly relevant to a leader’s reality, but no matter how thoroughly researched, there is always an element of artificiality that leaves participants with a false sense of “how” because the real-world context never quite matches.

Instead, create opportunities for participants to share stories of current challenges they are facing so that they can collectively explore how they can effectively apply techniques to those challenges. Not only will participants reap the benefit of their peers’ collective wisdom, but the entire group will discover new ways how they too may apply critical concepts back in their workflow.

Your Leader Development Program - Tip 3

Memorable packets of information that all start with the same letter or rhyme or spell out a provocative word are useful mechanisms that are particularly advantageous when an individual needs to remember a simple, critical process. But these mnemonic devices are of limited value beyond this single use case. Sadly, this overused technique is regularly deployed across leader development programs and frequently greeted with eye rolls and cynical scowls because all participants know that leadership is contextually dependent. Artificially simple solutions are inadequate and, sometimes, downright counterproductive.

Instead of mnemonic devices, use real-world stories and examples as the vehicle to deliver critical ideas. The story will not only be more memorable, but it will also provide your participants with a cognitive template that can be applied across a wide spectrum of contexts.

Your leaders are exceedingly busy and they do not have the time (or patience) to waste a moment in ineffectual leader development programs. Spending time focused on the what and the why will leave your people wanting, but if you integrate storytelling into your program in strategic ways, you will give them what they truly need – the how.

David Livingston

Managing Partner, McChrystal Group Academy

David Livingston leads a team of subject matter experts, learning designers, and dynamic facilitators who develop and deliver custom learning courses and programs that leverage a variety of experiential learning methods to drive individual growth and higher performance for teams and organizations.

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