#4 Summer 2015

No manual for leadership development

Leadership development expert Liz de Wet says that leaders need a deeply rooted sense of who they are and what they are trying to achieve, as well as a sense of purpose and meaning if they want to maximise their impact and effectiveness.

There are thousands of leadership development programmes across the globe, but only a handful that deliver real behaviour change in leaders.

According to McKinsey research, while US companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development, just 7% of senior managers polled by a UK business school think that their companies develop global leaders effectively and around 30% of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities.

To speak to those who have passed through the programmes under the guidance of leadership development expert Liz de Wet, is to know that hers are among the handful that deliver.

“I gained tremendous personal insight, and my leadership style grew and changed as a result of the learnings. I was amazed at the depth of learning I experienced, both about myself, and insights into my leadership and organisation generally,” says Teresa Booth-Oliveira, former General Manager Products for Chevron Corporation, a graduate of the Women in Leadership programme at the GSB, which de Wet has run for the past three years.

“The programme has given me an enormous wealth of insight into myself, both as a person and a professional. It has influenced the way I think, and is transforming the way I lead every day,” says Dawn Trail, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, EMEA, who participated in another of de Wet’s programmes, the ASCEND Women’s Leadership Programme. A joint initiative of Johnson & Johnson global and the GSB, de Wet has facilitated ASCEND since its inception in 2007.

“I have a keen interest in developing innovative facilitation methods for transforming ideas and insights into sustained action,” says de Wet, who has spent more than 20 years honing the art of bringing out the best in leaders. “To my mind, the ideas we work with are easy to understand, but hard to do. It is common sense, but not common practice and I am intent upon how we can make it common practice.”

“This is the whole point,” she says. She is aiming to change behaviour, not just to increase theoretical knowledge. Her programmes are practice-based, in which cutting edge leadership thinking is translated into practical behaviours.

De Wet says, “Leadership is a relational art – you cannot learn this from a manual. So in my programmes, everything we do is grounded in interactions with each other in the room. That will take a lot of different forms, sometimes we work in the whole group, sometimes in pairs. We use a range of different learning modalities, all of which are grounded in real-time application and practice.

“What I am after is to help people genuinely embed new ways of doing things.”

It is not easy achieving this kind of result in a short period of time – the majority of leadership programmes run over just a few weeks or months, but the structure of the intervention is designed to help embed learning. All the programmes de Wet runs are organised over several modules to allow for personal application during the intermodular period. On the Women in Leadership programme, participants are also supported between modules by an executive coach to assist them with taking what they have learnt to their workplaces.

This structure may be one of the reasons the programmes are so successful. According to the McKinsey research, many leadership development interventions fail because they decouple reflection from real work. Adults typically retain just 10% of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. Another common mistake is to underestimate the power of mindsets. Thus, addressing behaviour change means that you also have to engage with “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions that drive this change, the authors argue.

De Wet is no stranger to engaging with such mindsets. Much of her work focuses on finding the strengths and weaknesses in an individual, identifying what their triggers are and how these can be interrupted, to enable a person to make conscious choices and have more impact as a leader. She says becoming more self-confident and assertive comes naturally as participants learn more about themselves, how they engage with others and how they can improve on their professional relationships.

“Leaders need a deeply rooted sense of who they are and what they are trying to achieve, as well as a sense of purpose and meaning,” she says and much of the time on her programmes is spent teasing that out of delegates.

“The principle here is that there is no one-sizefits-all. Each person brings themselves to this kind of programme. They are the instruments of their own leadership and we find out how to amplify that.

“Every programme is different and reflects what is happening in the world, the environment and new insights gathered by me and other thought leaders in the field,” she adds.

De Wet is influenced in her work by many prominent academics and thinkers including Margaret Wheatley, Angeles Arrien, Otto Scharmer (in terms of Theory U), Nancy Kline (for her work on the Thinking Environment), as well as Eddie Obeng, among ot hers.

She says one of her biggest frustrations with conventional learning environments is the belief that if people understand a concept then the objective has been reached.

She takes the example of communication. “Many leaders don’t know how to listen and as a result, do not allow their employees or staff members to think productively, especially in meetings. I am often bewildered by why any of us are speaking if nobody is listening. People tend to listen up to the point when they have formulated a response.”

But, part of the work involves a deep conviction that people can change. “The learning works. I don’t teach anything that I don’t use or know works,” she says.

The other founding principle of her work is that, as a facilitator, you need to be authentic. She does not expect her students to do anything that she has not done herself, having engaged in years of introspection, reading, studying, reflection and practice. “I practice what I preach,” she says. “I read a huge amount and I use the work on myself. The reason I can be so confident about shifting behaviour is because I start with my own.”

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