Senior executives often receive most of their leadership training during the later chapters of their career, when they have the most experience. Organizations also strive to conduct annual performance and talent reviews to identify high performing and most promising employees (HiPos) and provide them with sufficient development. In both scenarios, the individuals who receive the most development are also those who arguably need it the least. We call this the Leadership Development Paradox.
The business case for investing in the “best” given limited organizational resources seems simple: people with a proven track record of success deserve recognition, right? They also seem like safe bets who will benefit the most from development opportunities because they have the experience and capabilities required to grow.
A by-product of the leadership development paradox is that the “rest” are typically excluded from these opportunities, creating perceived disparities and inequalities within organizations. A long-standing finding in health and policy research is that unequal societies with large gaps between haves and have-nots have lower quality of life. Similarly, organizations with larger gaps between those who receive and those who do not receive development may also be susceptible to organizational disparity.
Additionally, this strategy may violate employee expectations. Workers generally believe that organizations have an obligation to provide employees with development opportunities throughout their tenure. Failure to meet these expectations can ultimately lead to negative consequences, such as poorer job performance, lower commitment to the organization, and greater intentions to quit.
Here are three common but potentially problematic assumptions that underlie the leadership development paradox and strategies for leaders to overcome these blind spots.
Assumption #1: Success is the result of individual effort
People tend to believe that individual effort and hard work leads to success. Therefore, the reason why individuals are not success is because they don’t have a strong work ethic. But consider an observation made by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley in the mid-1980s and described by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers: Among any elite group of hockey players, a disproportionate number of athletes will be born closer to the start of the year. Why is that?
Due to the January 1 deadline for age-class hockey in Canada, a child who turns 10 on January 2 could play alongside someone who won’t turn 10 for another year; those 12 short months make a big physical difference at this age. Therefore, while both children may put in a similar effort, the older child is more likely to be picked for all-star teams and receive more playing time and better coaching – a cumulative advantage over time that paves the way to the major leagues.
All employees come into organizations with their unique combination of abilities and experiences, some of which may not be under their direct control, which contribute to different levels of performance and productivity. Over time, high performers accrue an edge: They’re more likely to be invited to leadership development programs, flagged as HiPos, and promoted to more senior, high-exposure positions.
The consequence for the remaining employees is an accumulation sayadvantage, where low- or mid-performing individuals are more likely to stay at, or decline from, their current performance because they are excluded from development programs that could improve their skills and abilities, which reduces opportunities for career advancement.
One way to address this issue is to offer training support for all employees with flexible performance criteria for eligibility. Consider global software company Adobe’s Learning Fund: In support of ongoing training and professional development, all “high performing employees” are eligible for an annual reimbursement of up to $10,000 for college degrees and other certifications and USD 1,000 for short-term contracts. learning opportunities. While employee performance remains at the center of decision-making, Adobe’s Learning Fund does not disproportionately favor high performers.
Hypothesis #2: Past performance predicts future performance
A fundamental tenet of psychology is that our past behavior predicts future behavior. Therefore, it is not surprising that organizations reward current top performers with new development opportunities, assuming that these people will continue to perform well in the future. However, consider the following two scenarios, which illustrate some pitfalls of this assumption.
The first is the Peter principle: in any hierarchy, such as those found in organizations, individuals tend to rise to their level of incompetence. When an employee performs a role well, they are often promoted to a more complex position. This cycle of performance promotion repeats until the employee is eventually promoted to a final role in which they can no longer perform well. So, when promotions are awarded solely on the basis of past performance, every role in an organization will tend to end up being filled by someone who may struggle to perform at a high level there.
Second, the disruption of the future of work. In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, they estimate that by 2025, automation and technological advancements will eliminate 85 million jobs and also create 97 million new ones. As a result, organizations are increasingly faced with the challenge of identifying and developing individuals for as-yet-undefined roles, making employee performance in their current role one piece of a larger puzzle when predicting their performance in a possible future role.
One approach to addressing this blind spot is to assess attributes that indicate an individual has the potential to grow for future organizational needs instead of focusing decisions solely on their current performance. Relevant indicators include their learning agility, which reflects a willingness and ability to learn and perform new skills, and typical intellectual engagement, which reflects a broad desire to engage and understand the world. Self-assessment instruments have been developed to assess these characteristics, but they can also be assessed via interviews or observations – for example focusing on when individuals last learned a new skill and been able to apply it to a new situation, or how absorbed they were. become by devoting time to their interests and hobbies.
More generally, organizations need to have strong assessment practices in place to ensure they are investing in the right people for development, such as scientifically valid and reliable instruments, an understanding of the organizational and business context, and qualified professionals to interpret assessment results. While these recommendations aren’t new, evidence indicates that many organizations fall short. In a landmark study that looked at 84 companies, only about one in four used valuation methods to identify HiPos.
Hypothesis #3: Motivated employees benefit the most from development
When organizations send employees to leadership development programs, their ultimate goal is to make them perform better than before. To this end, managers generally select people who they believe are most likely to benefit from training – those who are generally motivated to learn or intrinsically interested in leading and therefore considered “development ready”. Therefore, the people who have the most room growing up — that is, those who most ‘need development’ — are often excluded from these opportunities.
But what happens when we include these people in these training opportunities? How much would they get out of formal leadership training?
Our recent article published in Leadership Quarterly explored these questions. We took 240 cadets from the Royal Canadian Air Cadet Program through an intensive, ongoing six-week leadership development course focused on improving their leadership abilities. Similar to leadership development offered to employees at many companies, this course was delivered face-to-face, included theory and practical methods, and provided assessments and feedback.
Over the course of the training period, we tracked changes in participants’ leader effectiveness, that is, their confidence in leading others. We assessed this result because to be effective leaders, individuals must be confident in their leadership abilities, and previous research has shown that leader effectiveness predicts leadership performance.
We found that people with the greatest “development needs”—those who are generally less motivated to learn or intrinsically interested in leading—experienced twice as much growth in their leadership confidence as those who were most ready for development. At the end of the training, the leadership confidence gap between these two groups was reduced by 35%. Thus, those who apparently lacked the motivation to learn or lead actually benefited from investments in leadership development and, when considered in absolute terms, actually benefited the most from the experience.
Therefore, one method for leaders to overcome this blind spot is to select employees one-on-one into development programs – in other words, for every development-ready employee who is chosen for a development program, include a employee with development needs. This ensures that the leadership skills gap between these two groups of individuals does not widen and helps reduce organizational disparity. While the specific programs may not be the same for these two groups as their development goals may differ, they both benefit from development, which ensures organizations have a stronger talent pool.
Ultimately, it is essential to ensure that the leadership development paradox does not occur, because the success of organizations depends as much on the “medium talented” as on the few. In the midst of this talent war that currently has no geographic limits and shows no signs of stopping, investing in the “rest” ensures you have a solid bench and protects you from the risk of leaking into the Great Resignation.