The other side of the sheep dip

Alternatives to classroom based LD training

Sheep dip

A key strategy in the road to recovery has been a global-wide sharp increase in Leadership Development investment. The survivors of the reorganisational structuring that has been in play since the recession hit us are expected to do “more for less” (more workload, more responsibility… less tiers of management to supervise them). Developing leadership and self-leadership capacity is proving to be a key strategic priority.

Research by Bersin and Deloitte shows dramatic rises in training spending within the US.


A recent American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) report (2013) costs it at $162.4 billion USD spent by US companies with 13.5% of this figure being spent on management and leadership development. That is almost $22.2 billion USD spent by US companies on management and leadership development in 2012. And this is only in the US.

Despite the ratcheting-up of investment in leadership development, most companies still develop their leaders using a classic sheep dip approach – in HR speak, a programmatic classroom based intervention. Leaders and potential leaders trot off for a one-week intense off-the-peg residential leadership programme and are stoked up to become great leaders only to return back to their day jobs (and old habits) and the photos, gizmos and promises of new leadership behaviours all end up in the bottom drawer. Let’s face it, off-the-shelf/one-off programmatic leadership interventions (the “sheep-dip approach”) is not really effective and most certainly is not good value for the $22.2 billion plus lavished on them. If, like me, you have taken the time to follow up with leadership alumni who attended one-off residential leadership training, in general you get the sense that people:

– had a good time
– cultivated contacts/networks
– picked up a few tools and techniques which they have been using
– felt invested in by the company

You do not get the general impression that they have significantly changed their leadership behaviours, most would concede that it didn’t really make much of a difference and the pressures of day-to-day work and habits took over once they had their feet under their hot desk. It begs the question, are companies really getting value for money on such a large investment?

Listed below are three alternative leadership interventions which build and, in some cases, replace one-off programmatic offerings.

1. Blended Learning (least effective)
One-off programmatic interventions are more powerful when blended with other approaches. Best practice here includes:

• interval training – splitting the residential or online programme over a 6 month interval and having coaching/workplace assignments in between
• involving the line in the process (especially at the pre and post stage)
• ensuring established leaders form part of the faculty (creating a leader-developing-leader culture)
• creating opportunities to apply the learning back in the workplace (this can be achieved by taking an assignment and using it as a way to embed new leadership behaviours and approaches)
• establishing a coaching programme
• ensuring the programme is timely and relevant to the learners’ situation so that the learning doesn’t become a theoretical fog but is directly relevant and applicable to the learners’ role back in the workplace
• good impact measurement tools and processes so that organisations can assess effectiveness

2. Interventionist Learning (effective)
The interventionist approach is where potential leaders experience aspects of leadership prior to assuming a formal leadership role. Although still very much in the tradition of processing leaders, this is a more incremental and tailored approach to developing leaders. Leadership intervention best practice includes:

Mentoring – partnering a young emerging leader with an established leader who has no authority/status over the young leader can yield positive results
Formal and informal coaching – ensuring that regular coaching conversations take place between the young leader and his/her manager about leadership progression. More progressive organisations create reinforcing structures by (for example) making it part of the managers’ performance review and ensuring that promotion/progression only takes place if the manager can demonstrate that s/he is committed to coaching and developing others . Coaching doesn’t always have to be a formal conversation, it can take place in what David Peterson and Mary Dee Hicks (1996) term ‘coachable moments’
Use of 360 degree feedback – 360 degree feedback is solicited feedback from a variety of sources: peer groups, manager, senior-executives, stakeholders, clients, suppliers, staff etc. In large companies, this is often computer processed with a generated final report which clearly highlights strengths and areas for development. 360 degree feedback is a powerful tool which can highlight blindspots and can be used in conjunction with coaching to promote behavioural change
Early leadership opportunities – this can be one of the more powerful leadership interventions – to take young emerging leaders and give them temporary leadership assignments such as leading a major project. It is important that the emergent leader is allocated a coach and is allowed to take risks and make mistakes
Shadowing senior leaders – allowing emerging leaders to sit in on leadership team meeting and observe leaders in action can be very effective. A best practice way to achieve this is giving the young leader a formal organisation role in the meeting. Some companies place their emerging leaders as short-term Senior Executive Assistants. Giving emerging leaders early exposure to senior leaders in action helps broaden the perspective of the emerging leader and expose them to the decision making process within the organisation. In the words of John Gardner :

Short of giving young people actual experience in leading, it is useful to place them in situations in which they can observe leaders at close-range and find the role models so helpful to further growth

• “Bite-size” learning – small “bite-size” learning interventions which exploit current technology such as pod-casting and use of in-house social media can be effective

3. Self-directional learning (most effective)
Self-directional learning is where the learner constructs their own pathway to leadership focusing primarily on inner behavioural development. Such self-enlightenment, depicted in books as Joe Jaworski’s Synchronocity: The Inner Path of Leadership , is a powerful self-taught odyssey which generates real lasting commitment to behavioural change and promotes authentic behaviour. Daniel Goleman et. al. write in Primal Leadership , “the crux of leadership that works is self-directed learning”.

Self-directional learning builds self-awareness and capacity through vision and ‘the power of choice’. As Senge says in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook , “Having made that choice, the vision will become part of you – wherever it may lead.”. Commentators such as Robert Fritz and Michael Ray , gurus in personal mastery and self-directed learning, suggest that any form of self-directional learning requires an understanding of three basic things:

• Where you want to be (personal vision)
• Where you are now (current reality)
• Identifiable steps to get you from where you are now to where you want to be (plan of action)

Here the LD practitioners’ role is to:

• Make the case for self-transition
• Create a strategic framework
• Provide standardised direction, tools and techniques for potential leaders to self-develop their leadership

In these cash restrained times where organisations are striving for more value for less cost, finding alternatives to the sheep dip approach to developing leaders is crucial. In previous years, reaching out to individuals on a one-to-one basis was costly and sometimes worked against an organisation-wide strategic approach to developing leaders, but the new technology is making bespoke leadership development accessible, measurable and cost-effective.

If you pour your LD budget into a sheep dip, you are just going to end up with well groomed sheep. Now, more than ever, it is time to create value and look beyond the sheep dip.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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