A better way forward: A business-first approach to leadership development

A better way forward: A business-first approach to leadership development
Posted by Noah Rabinowitz on November 09, 2016.

You may be familiar with cookbook approaches to leadership development: a dash of reading, a sprinkling of inspirational lectures, a few stretch assignments, a bit of mentoring, a case study or two, and even some cool field trips. The result might make leaders feel more prepared or more skilled in general and typically provides a great opportunity to expand their peer network, but the learning often isn’t readily applicable to the real-world problems of the business. In the second installment of our four-part series on leadership development, we look at how organizations can make the development effort more real, more relevant, and more likely to make a meaningful impact by tying it directly to the business.

Traditional leadership development is frequently content driven, emphasizing “what you need to learn” vs. “how you’ll apply it.” As a result, it aims to teach specific things that leaders can do to be more successful, without recognizing the knowledge and experience they bring to the table—but that may not be the most effective approach. There is no set recipe for better leaders; there are too many variables, and context (rather than content) is key.

In contrast, a business-first approach to leadership development is all about context and closely connecting development efforts to the particulars of your organization’s business strategy. Note that it’s not about “aligning” to business strategy, it’s about being part of and inside the strategy. This is an important distinction. Traditional leadership development might look at your business strategy, pick a set of competencies that seem aligned to that strategy, and chart a course for developing those competencies in leaders. This approach, though, may be too indirect and too removed from the business. Business-first leadership development goes much deeper. It uses the actual business as the case study and lab, tapping into the expertise your people already have to build the business while you further build their skills and the overall leadership bench, with the two intertwined rather than happening on parallel tracks.

When we work with organizations to develop a business-first approach, we use a variety of enabling methods, principles, and tools to help leaders develop in the context of specific business issues they are dealing with in their current roles.

The first shift is to change the focus from how leaders behave to how leaders think, realizing that how leaders think drives what they do.1 In particular, schema-based development is an evidence-based method backed by extensive research2 that helps leaders develop and apply informed thinking to the challenges they face. This focus on thinking maximizes the flexibility of the approach, making it applicable in many different scenarios.

A second way to add business context is by tailoring development based on the learner’s industry, recognizing that the pace, process, and intensity of development can vary greatly by industry. While the underlying principles of building talent—(a) finding the right people and (b) working to develop them—may ring true in most situations, the approach in each setting is necessarily very different.

A big-box retailer may be focused on identifying high-potential talent in a broad pipeline of leaders. In this setting, the path someone takes to reach management positions may be steady, and the number of people who can do the work may be broader, but the trick is figuring out the best ways to identify and develop them while driving operational efficiency. Contrast this with a state government looking at a developing leaders who manage the politics and policies of long-term initiatives in infrastructure or human services. Or a high-tech firm trying to balance two realities: (1) the need for leaders who are both business savvy and tech savvy, and (2) a short supply of technical talent which makes it imperative to cater leadership development to individual needs and preferences as a hedge against turnover. Each of these situations involves leadership development, but the emphasis and the who-what-why-how change greatly in each context.

A third way to add business context is to practice logged-on learning, where learning is oriented around the specific issues that people are dealing with in real time. This approach leverages close collaboration with HR and senior execs so leaders in training get guidance in solving a problem and gain insights they can use going forward as part of their development. This often occurs in a range of learning labs, greenhouses, charrettes, and the like that enable people to focus on solving real issues in real time. New Bersin by Deloitte research highlights the value of not limiting learners to isolated training programs that don’t interact with the business in real time (see High-Impact Leadership: The New Leadership Maturity Model and the complimentary WhatWorks® brief). Instead, it shows that new experiences and high-stakes exposure are where some of the most effective learning and development happens.

Finally, we add business context through meaningful measurement tied directly to the concepts being taught in the program and to business outcomes as a result of applying that learning. So, in addition to typical measurements of learning outcomes—for example, feedback sheets measuring the subjective value of the course content—we identify ways the program is leading to increases in performance, transformation, speed, customer outcomes, innovation, and the like. These don’t have to be directly monetary related, but rather outcomes the business actually cares about.

For example, in a business-first context, the scenario may be that a group of leaders comes together to focus on developing a new product and go through XYZ training as part of that effort. Six months later, the product has been developed and sold for X dollars. Or the leaders focus on a supply chain issue, which is later resolved due to their efforts and results in more stable and secure production capabilities. Instead of attempting to measure how leaders responded to the development process (which is difficult to assess under the best of circumstances), the time, money, and effort spent on development should be justified by demonstrating a meaningful change that positively impacted the organization.

This kind of business-first approach, focusing on developing leaders in the context of their particular business and industry, is a way you can make that happen.


Noah Rabinowitz is a managing director in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Leadership practice, helping clients solve their most important challenges through people development, learning, and leadership.

1 John Crump, Ph.D., Senior managers: Are senior managers who have demonstrated consistent career success any different from those who have not? Deloitte MCS Limited., UK, 2016.

2 Sarah Blissett, Rodrigo B. Cavalcanti, and Matthew Sibbald, Should we teach using schemas? Evidence from a randomised trial, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012. MEDICAL EDUCATION 2012; 46: 815–822.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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