The issue of executive support for leadership development solutions is far more complex than often acknowledged. Unfortunately, all too often, we hear generalizations ("We don't have executive support for this") without due consideration of the variables that must be taken into account. What are these variables, and what clear strategies do learning professionals need to determine whether the required degree of executive support for a leadership development initiative is present?
When considering executive support, three variables are in play:
- the degree of influence of each executive member
- the purpose of the leadership development initiative
- the nature of the support given.
Executive organizational influence
Let us first look at the variable that exists within the executive ranks. We use the word, "executive" to describe several individuals, each of whom has differing degrees of influence within the organization. This ultimately determines the extent to which support for leadership development is required.
Organizational influence is driven by a number of factors and stems from power. The more that individuals control resources, form important alliances, and possess admired qualities, the more their co-workers defer to their ideas and directives, according to the 2008 article "Personality and Organizational Culture as Determinants of Influence" in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The structural determinants of influence, such as the authority bestowed upon an individual by virtue of the position he holds within the organization, formalize the power aspect. A CEO has more authority, and thus influence, than other members of the executive team. Likewise, a senior vice president will have more than a vice president. Organizational influence stemming from authority carries great weight in traditional, hierarchical organizations and less in flat organizations where power is distributed more evenly.
Above and beyond power, influence can stem from the use of effective influence tactics such as ingratiation, threats, the use of reason and logic, and coalition building, wrote David Kipnis, Stuart M. Schmidt, and Ian Wilkinson in a 1980 Journal of Applied Psychology article, "Intraorganizational Influence Tactics: Explorations in Getting One's Way." In addition, research also suggests that influence stems from personal characteristics, and specifically, the fit between the person and her organization. Extraverts tend to have more influence in a team-oriented organization, whereas conscientious introverts attain more influence in an organization in which individuals work alone on technical tasks according to "Personality and Organizational Culture as Determinants of Influence."
This suggests that the formal authority of various executives is not sufficient to determine their degree of influence within the organization. Even if two individuals have the same level of power, they might differ in their levels of influence if one uses more effective influence tactics than the other or has a personality that is better matched with the culture of the organization.
For example, a CEO may have the greatest organizational authority, yet a chief operating officer may wield the most influence. Organizational influence may be present around the executive table, but it is often the up-and-coming young leaders seen as future successors who will have the most influence within the organization. Those around the executive table may have a lesser influence, particularly if they are heading for retirement.
The degree of organizational influence an executive holds determines the type of support that is required for a leadership development initiative from each executive. While the nature of the leadership development training initiative is also a factor, it is safe to assume that more overt support is needed from those with significant organizational influence. Conversely, less support is required from those with less organizational influence.
Purpose of the leadership development solution
Leadership development undertakings vary in purpose. Some solutions are strategic in nature, but such initiatives tend to be full-scale organizationwide solutions focused on behavioral change and are best regarded as organizational change initiatives. Conversely, leadership training focused more on education and knowledge acquisition is unlikely to change the very essence of the organization and thus can be considered more tactical in nature.
In terms of executive support, the more influential the solution, the more support required. Leadership development that can in any way be considered strategic or transformational, requires significant executive support. In this regard, it is no different from other strategic undertakings such as an acquisition, new marketing initiative, or launch of a new product. It would be difficult to envision these strategic initiatives taking place without full executive support. Leadership development focused on organizational transformation should be no different.
The nature of executive support
The final factor to be considered is the nature of support. All too often, it is viewed as an absolute - you either have it or you do not. In reality, executive support can come in many shapes and sizes, from being active participants in the learning or organizational sponsors, to simply permitting the program to take place and not sabotaging it.
When faced with a leadership solution, an executive may assume any one of a number of attitudes. He may be resistant, disinterested, interested, involved, accountable, or invested.
When an executive is resistant, she concludes that a learning initiative is unnecessary, either culturally or from an expense point of view. While she may not openly verbalize her opposition, she may actively sabotage the program by preventing her people from participating in it, criticizing it, or discouraging new behaviors and ideas promoted in it, or withholding funds in some way. When dealing with a resistant executive, it is critical to get buy-in for at least some element of the initiative. The good news with the resistant executive is at least there is passion, which has the potential to be redirected. Although it will be a tough battle, it can be done.
The most troublesome executive is the one that is disinterested. Unfortunately, this is quite common within organizations. In this case, a senior executive may believe that the accountability for people and organizational development does not lie within his scope of responsibilities and he instead abdicates everything to human resources, the organizational development group, or external consultants.
While this may free up those functions to do whatever they want (as long as it is in keeping with budget), the chance of any initiative gaining traction within the organization is slim at best because the initiative is seen "only" as an HR program and is conceptually shelved as irrelevant to strategy.
Furthermore, it is likely that participants, especially senior managers, will conclude that the executives don't care about development. This typically makes it hard for anyone to take development seriously, and in ways that make it effective. It is certainly possible to do skill-building and knowledge acquisition without any executive interest. But in our experience, it is foolhardy to believe that initiatives framed against a disinterested executive will have any major organizational consequences unless that executive has very limited influence within the organization.
The first level of positive support is interest. In this case, executives see the possible benefits of a well-designed learning or change initiative and thus are likely to support it in one or more ways. For example, they may be present for launch and closure, they might ensure that their people are sufficiently freed up to spend time on their learning, and they may support any changes in behavior they see. While clearly such behaviors are more effective than those exhibited by a resistant or disinterested executive, all too often executives convince themselves that simply being interested in the program qualifies as sufficient support.
In these cases, executives typically underestimate the impact of their actions. Interest with neither involvement nor accountability is a long way from what is required to create meaningful organizational change. Participants will "read" meaning into the lack of involvement from an executive and conclude that the initiative is not a strategic imperative. Equally, a lack of accountability around the initiative can mean that it is not tied to specific organizational strategies.
When executives become involved, they step inside the initiative not only as a supporter but as an active participant. In this case, an executive will temporarily drop her role and stand side-by-side with other organizational members as a participant in learning. The modeling of learning that takes place creates a powerful statement for all employees and demonstrates that learning is important and something that is valued by the organization. It is not just a reward or gift; it is something worthwhile for everyone in the organization, regardless of rank. Obviously, managing executive participation in an initiative requires careful planning to keep traditional hierarchical patterns out of the environment, but the payoff can be powerful.
The next highest level of support is one in which an executive takes accountability for the impact and success of the training solution. By taking accountability for learning strategies, an executive publicly acknowledges the initiative as a tool for organizational change. This executive frequently and publicly pays close attention to the program and in so doing sends a loud message to participants that it is an important initiative. While, just as the interested executive, they may attend launches and graduations, their tone is different and the questions they ask portray a greater intensity. They are focused on outcomes, impact, and results and continually stay in touch with how the program is unfolding. The accountable executive also makes sure the initiative is integrated into other parts of the organizational system and does not see this as a simple training program.
The rarest kind of support and the one that can lead to the most significant organizational impact is when the executive is invested in the initiative - emotionally, personally, and organizationally. The invested executive combines the very best of the involved and accountable executive. By taking accountability for learning strategies, executives see the learning as a tool for organizational change.
By being an active participant and investing in their own development, executives publicly acknowledge they have a responsibility in the organizational transformation and it is not simply up to others to implement the strategic change. To create "invested" executives for learning, it is important that learning professionals not only involve executives in strategic organizational and people development, but also ask them to both make such initiatives part of strategic planning and invest time and commitment into their own development. This level of support can create amazing results and is exactly what is required for a high-impact organizational change solution.
The chart demonstrates how the three variables - the degree of influence of each executive member, the degree of strategic importance of a leadership-development initiative, the nature of the support given - interact and are used to determine if sufficient executive support is present. By determining the strategic importance of the leadership development initiative as well as the degree of organizational influence, the required level of support for each executive can be determined.
Any learning initiative is fundamentally a change initiative. Many leadership development efforts are treated as "training," and training is often not seen as organizational change. A lack of strong senior support usually self-fulfills this prophecy. However, for leadership development to "stick," all of the ingredients of managing and leading a successful organizational change must be present.
John Kotter reminds us that a coalition must be built to support change. Our observation, based on years of working with organizations on leadership development is that the nature of the coalition supporting development can vary depending on the executive "players" but also the nature of the desired outcome of the development.
Fundamentally, however, a leadership development effort aimed at changing the way people lead in an organization must be supported visibly from those senior leaders that are viewed as touchstones for leadership within the organization. Without this support, the development aim will almost certainly fall flat - how could it not? If the actual influential leaders in an organization do not support a new way of talking and thinking about leadership, we could not expect a change in the culture until the players themselves shift - in effect, leave.
A strong leadership development initiative needs to be as carefully planned as any change initiative and the appropriate coalition of support needs to be sought. As our model illustrates, "support" can come in many forms and crucially must be matched to the actual and symbolic power senior leaders have within the organization.T+D