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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Leadership training that won't annoy people, part one: Don't teach anything!

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

The greatest temptation for leadership developers, whether they are trainers, instructional designers, HR professionals, or anyone tasked with building up teams, is teaching too many "things." From facts and frameworks to thinkers and thought leaders, this field is oversaturated with perspectives. When we teach too many "things," our content moves too far towards abstraction. Skill gaps continue to expand.

Luckily, there is a solution. Step one in building leadership training that won't annoy people: Don't. Teach. Anything.

But wait - if I don't teach anything, how do I teach leadership development? Stay with me. We'll soon answer that question.

First, let's consider a week in the life of a people leader. Fortune estimates that those in management positions work between 50 and 55 hours per week, approximately 20% more hours than the average American worker.

This is my cat, Cersei. It's a waste of time to try to teach her things.

If we look only at the time spent in office, these 10+ hour workdays involve sending and receiving over 86 emails and attending an average of over four hours worth of meetings (at the middle management level). This work is done while trying to squeeze in time with direct reports. Most highly-rated managers meet for 30-60 minutes with each employee, each week.

A marked lack of time is the stark reality of today's business manager, which might explain why leadership burnout has become increasingly prevalent.

Yet trainers and leadership developers, myself included, have the audacity to try to schedule additional time with these busy, burnout-prone professionals, to teach things about leadership!

We're doing this with greater frequency and with increasingly sizable program budgets. As more companies have established formal programs for leadership development, the leadership training industry has ballooned to an annual worth 3.4 billion dollars.

In this new workplace economy, where time is limited, stress is high, yet leadership training is plentiful, the responsible talent developer has but one ethical choice: don't teach anything.

Today's workplace leader simply doesn't have the space for learning new "things" about leadership. Managers don't have the time or energy for the latest bullet points on emotional intelligence or the most recent commentary on negotiation skills. The latest trends on effective leadership might make for flashy PowerPoints at talent development conferences, but they're bound to have people leaders reaching for their Slack app and scanning for the nearest exit sign.

Teaching things is the work of yesterday's talent developer. Today's talent developer must aspire to do more.

Eight of every ten of today's CEOs sense an impending crisis of skill gaps within their leadership ranks. These CEOs worry that their employees presently lack the skills needed to thrive and compete in an uncertain economic future. Low unemployment and a tight labor market will only exacerbate these concerns.

In this new workplace economy, we cannot afford to teach leaders "things," because learning things will always take a backseat to more pressing priorities. We must resolve instead to develop specific skills.

Today's talent developer can begin to develop skills by asking three questions:

  • Given the goals and context of a team, what skills do its leaders really need?

  • To what extent is there a gap between the skills leaders have and the skills leaders need?

  • To what extent are people leaders personally invested in closing those gaps through skill development?

The sooner talent developers answer these questions, the faster they can stop teaching things, and start building skills. When we teach skills instead of things, leadership training engages and it empowers. Or at the least, it doesn't annoy people.

Skill development demands attunement and patience: attunement to the unique learning needs within the organization, and patience to endure the time-intensive effort required of systems-building. Skill building is a different process than training. It requires a long-term outlook, a systems-wide focus, a commitment to practice, and plenty of space for reflection. Building skills is not so much about knowledge and learning as it is about habits, feedback, and systems.

In the next blog post, the second of this series, we'll turn to problem number two: introducing too many frameworks and models, and its corresponding solution: don't use models or frameworks!

We'll explore how we develop leadership skills not through frameworks or models, but through systems in which meaningful skills can be developed.

Remember, leaders: Trust the process. Because processes are trustable.

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