Leadership development shouldn’t just focus on leaders

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More than 30 years ago, Edwards Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” He was emphasizing the heavy influence of our workplace context and the resulting futility of focusing solely on humans when people problems arise.

We know that 94% of workplace problems are systemic. Factors like toxic culture, bottlenecks, a lack of strategic clarity, lack of diversity, or cross-functional conflict act as organizational barriers that stifle your good people’s impact. Put a good person in a bad system, and the bad system will win.

And yet, too many organizations are still doubling down on training individuals alone to resolve their workplace woes when only 6% of workplace issues have to do with individual characteristics in the first place. This seems like bad math.

I meet frequently with talented executives who are looking for change and often feeling the residual frustration that follows when they can’t pinpoint the return on their past training investments. They share concerns like, “We sent three of our VPs to that two-day workshop, but it didn’t fix our coaching problems. People are still feeling burned out.” Or, “We do quarterly trainings every year, but with so many folks remote, communication is still a huge struggle.”

I think training leaders without interrogating the systems they’re swimming in is like trying to brush your teeth while eating Oreos. Like training, it’s not the toothbrush that’s the problem.

Nevertheless, the problem is expensive. In the United States, organizations spend $166 billion on leadership development every year, and it’s estimated that $50 billion of that sum is wasted because it doesn’t work. It doesn’t yield any verifiable impact.

And impact, in this case, is meaningful behavior change.

If you haven’t changed, you haven’t learned.

While learning is worthy by its own merit, companies don’t spend money on learning at work so that leaders come away with greater comprehension alone. Stakeholders are betting you’ll do something different, too. Change will be the evidence of your having learned—the moment you moved beyond competent and became capable.

This nuance isn’t uncommon in technical realms. Airline pilots don’t just read books about airplanes. They’ve spent time developing the behaviors to operate and fly them in airplane environments—like the sky. But I can recall a former boss whose leadership strategy would be best described as “business by best seller.” He was a good reader but (sadly) a wildly incapable doer.

The central goal of leadership development is, indeed, leadership capability. An ability to effectively demonstrate the behaviors that will fuel your unique, desired system and the relationships within.

So how do we stop wasting $50 billion a year and actually build development journeys that yield effective behavior-change? You focus on the system.

The 10-20-70 rule for learning and development gives us a recipe for success:

  • 10%:Knowledge and skills. This is the coursework, the training, the research-based models that are often taught to leaders.
  • 20%:Relationships. Leaders must both model the newly desired behaviors and meaningfully connect with their learners to create space and accountability for them to thrive.
  • 70%:Environment. Challenging experiences on the job and in the culture are where we practice and apply our skills “in real life.”

The 10-20-70 rule brings Deming’s quote full circle: You can’t put an up-skilled person in a bad environment and expect the good person to win. You can’t wash the salt off a pickle and drop it back in the brine. An old phrase, it evokes for me the way organizations consistently focus on training individuals before dropping them right back into a high-stress, understaffed work environment with their passive-aggressive boss. It’s no wonder they get salty again.

ADVISA’s three-part solution for leader transformation (that includes your system)

Broadly, it goes like this: First, diagnose your current state—gain objective clarity on what most leaders do most of the time in your environment right now. (We have a proprietary assessment tool that does this culture-reveal.) Second, define your aspirational culture—the kinds of behaviors you’ll need on display to reach your goals in the future. Third, map those behaviors to three unique leader capabilities. That is what your leaders need to be capable of literally doing. Now, you have a strategic cultural container from which to develop people and teams.

Why assign 100% of your investment to “rinsing off pickles” when they’re only 6% of your problem? If you want real transformation, it’s essential to also revitalize your relational and environmental conditions.

Let the acidity out of the brine.


Want to hear more from Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett? Read her previous article, “Here’s a tool to help take control of challenges.”

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on March 3, 2023.