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The best form of leadership development is taking a risk on the protégé, says consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni.

"My ongoing research with senior leaders in 25-plus organizations across the U.S. paints a compelling yet simple picture of the most effective leadership development strategy. When asked how their own managers or mentors helped them to grow the most, the number one response from executives is some permutation of 'they took a risk on me,' with more than 90% of those polled citing this as a pivotal development experience," she writes on her blog.

The executives talk about being "thrown in beyond their depth," being left to "figure things out themselves" or pushed to "sink or swim." The stories tend to have happy endings, with the leader emerging from the crucible triumphant. But there are still some mistakes, setbacks and even high-profile failure.

"Yet, these more challenging endings invariably launch additional stories of trust, hard conversations, candid feedback, and support. The executives who navigated their risky development assignments successfully learned a lot; those who encountered challenges likely learned more. And in both cases, their managers or mentors took a risk," she notes.

Usually, organizations try to limit risk. But in leadership development, she says risk must be cultivated. Here are some best practices she offers as you follow this route:

  • Calculate the risks: Don’t be blind or headstrong. “The most effective developers have the capacity to judge a prospective leader’s capacity. They weigh past results, efforts and challenges and can assess the readiness of the person for a new task. At the same time, they understand the organizational landscape sufficiently to evaluate the real costs associated with outcomes that might fall short of success,” she notes.
  • Give others enough rope: Give sufficient rope to let the protégé explore, experiment and experience some struggles, but still be reined in safely if necessary.
  • Consider your own political capital: You need to know how much political cover you can provide and flack you can absorb without being the one faced with sinking.
  • Expect mistakes: The protégé will make mistakes and miscalculations. That’s part of the learning. Keep a big picture perspective and don’t panic prematurely.

"Developing leaders is not for wimps. Done properly, learning can be messy. Development can be dicey. But it's precisely through the act of taking risks on others that today's leaders build tomorrow's leaders," she concludes.

In contemplating leadership development, some research by McKinsey & Company might also be helpful. It found that a few actions really matter and they require the CEO's attention.

In a survey, consultants Claudio Feser, Nicolai Nielsen and Michael Rennie delineate four sets of interventions that appear to be critical:

  • Focusing on the behaviours that really matters, based on context: Organizations with successful leadership-development programs were eight times more likely than those with unsuccessful ones to have focused on leadership behaviour that executives believed were critical drivers of business performance.
  • Ensuring sufficient reach across the organization: Make it an organizational journey rather than obsessing about a specific cohort. Organizations with successful programs were six to seven times more likely than their less successful peers to pursue interventions covering the whole organization, and to design programs in the context of a broader leadership-development strategy.
  • Designing the program for the transfer of learning: It helps to break out of the teacher-classroom approach. “Every successful leader tells stories of how he or she developed leadership capabilities by dealing with a real problem in a specific context,” they write. “Companies with successful leadership-development programs were four to five times more likely to require participants to apply their learnings in new settings over an extended period and to practice them in their job.”
  • Using system reinforcement to lock in change: We’re all familiar with leadership-development efforts where participants learn new things but return to a unit or organization that ignores or fights against their efforts for change. Instead, you must embed the change into the organization, adapting systems, processes and culture to support the new approaches.

Here are specific actions, and the increase in success rate when used:

  • Focus on leadership behaviour most critical to performance, which increases success by 8.1 times.
  • Ensure leadership development interventions cover the whole organization, 6.9 times.
  • Ensure the organization’s leadership-development model reaches all organizational levels, 6.4 times.
  • Encourage individuals to practise new behaviour that contributes to being a better leader, 6.1 times.
  • Review current formal and informal mechanisms for building leadership skills, 5.9 times.
  • Adapt formal HR systems such as recruiting and performance evaluation to reinforce leadership models, 5.6 times.
  • Determine how mindsets and behaviour needs to change, 5.5 times.
  • Translate strategy into required leadership capabilities, 5.4 times.
  • Have top team role model desired behaviour for leadership program, such as acting as coaches, 4.9 times.
  • Link content of leadership development to projects that stretch participants and have them apply their learning over time in new settings, 4.6 times.

Fish or cut bait?

A difficult decision we routinely face is whether to continue along a certain path, such as staying with a current supplier or switching to a new vendor. Consultant Jack Quarles, on the Thoughtleaders LLC blog, offers an easier way to handle what can be agonizing decisions – four simple questions to ask, with a scoring system that points to the answer:

  • Question one: How unhappy are you with the vendor or value you are getting now? Assign a number from one to five, where one is completely happy and five highly dissatisfied.
  • Question two: Does this represent a large expense for your budget? The more you are spending, the more money you might save. Again pick one to five, with one a small expense and five a large expense.
  • Question three: How many realistic options are out there? Choose a number with one for low or no competition and five many different potential sources.
  • Question four: Would it be relatively easy to switch vendors/providers/companies? Consider time, cost and risk and then assign a rating, with one for difficult to switch and five easy.

Add up your scores and he suggests the following decisions:

  • Eight or lower: Sleep easy
  • Nine to 11: On the bubble
  • 12 to 15: Start looking around for something better
  • 16 or higher: Find a new solution, ASAP!

Quick hits

  • Every great boss should say these four simple words each day, says Inc. columnist Jeff Haden: “Can you help me?” Shifting to customer service, consultant Jeff Mowatt shares six words that indicate you want to be the customer’s trusted adviser: “Knowing you, here’s what I’d suggest …”
  • When your to-do list gets out of control, organize a one-hour blitz in which you handle short tasks of a couple of minutes or less and administrative work such as filing, cancelling subscriptions and ordering office items, advises life coach Louise Thompson.
  • Executive summaries are common to written reports, giving the highlights and some of the arguments, but presentations consultant Dave Paradi warns when giving an oral report to keep to the key messages, leaving the rest of the detail in supplementary slides. An alternative is giving the agenda for the presentation, with even less detail, indicating where the journey will take your audience.
  • Leadership trainer Dan Rockwell recommends encouraging pessimists on your staff by discussing what might go wrong with your plans, figuring out how to prepare in advance should it happen.
  • To change the default font in recent editions of Microsoft Excel click options, the general tab, and then select the preferred font from the slot “use this as default font,” Excel specialist Allen Wyatt explains.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

‘Frankly I like to surround myself with introverts that help me but they modulate my behaviour.’

Special to Globe and Mail Update