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The COVID Catalyst: The Support Mechanism Model for Leadership Performance and Development

By Dr. Adrian Waite, META Head of Talent, Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness, Boehringer-Ingelheim

Remind me…what’s the core purpose of a talent and development function in your organization? 

If there is any hesitation, then let’s be clear: We are in the performance business. To unpick that a little—we put the right people with right experience and capability in the right place, at the right time. And at the same time, we nurture an ethical, collaborative and agile culture which consistently delivers optimal performance results, through intolerance of anything else.

Being accountable for performance outcomes in the real world, which we don’t wholly control, is what our operational colleagues do every day, why should we be different? 

The COVID Catalyst: Where were we before the Pandemic?

I hardly need answer this, as every one of us experienced it. The menu of topics, live, virtual or online, curated into module programs, sometimes a wish list for leaders to pick from, sometimes a tick box of competencies from “the framework”. But they are largely without real world performance metrics or objectives. (learning outcomes don’t count, they really don’t!)

I created my fair share of these programs over the decades, and organizations like the CIPD, ATD, and top business schools trained me through instructional design to do just that. Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly effective.

So what’s the problem?

Simply, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. When we look to identify learning needs, we create learning objectives and design learning solutions, to reach learning outcomes. That is a mistake and an entirely false flag of success.

Takeaway #1 – No-one in your business cares about learning outcomes.

Let it go. Stop pretending that this is any measurement of success in the real world. If you are teaching a Year 5 school class, certainly it does. But if you are supporting a business for sustainable success, it isn’t. See Above: We are not in the learning business.

“No problem” you say? “We develop our people against a strongly researched leadership competency framework, with weighted core competencies for success.”

Takeaway #2 – Competency doesn’t equal performance.

Our organizations are full of people who “CAN” do it. Even if your competency mapping is weighted perfectly for your business model and diverse operating landscape (Which I suspect it isn’t. It’s understandably far too generic to be focused in large companies). When we assess competency, we are usual asking “CAN” someone do “x” to a defined standard.  To be effective though, we don’t just ask if they “CAN” (Assessment); we don’t even just ask if they regularly “DO” (Input). We ask if they are reliably getting the “RESULTS” (Output) that matter. That is a very different question.

Takeaway #3 – Managing Performance isn’t covered by your Performance Management.

“But…Leadership needs to take responsibility. It’s not in my scope and I can’t do everyone’s jobs for them.”

Prior to the pandemic, we would hear this regularly. I may even have been guilty of trotting it out myself!  The catalyst of the pandemic though, demanded a fresh audit of what brings benefit, and importantly, what doesn’t.

So where are we now?

It can be argued that the thing that has really changed through the adaption of modified working practices is “Perception”. Our HR and IT functions were deservedly congratulated for rapid implementation of new practices and removing unnecessary obstacles to effectively engage a remote workforce, build agility through policy and technology, and move performance outcomes online.

But why did it take a pandemic for enabling, support functions to actually be perceived as enabling or supportive?

When the remote working weeks became months, we moved past reacting and new approaches for achieving medium and long term goals emerged. We started to question everything in a good way.

“How does system x, process y, or development z support the challenges faced now and in the future?” “Is there a better way?”

So what next? It’s about leaving behind what never really worked for us and building deliberate and practical support mechanisms to help leaders perform and learn simultaneously, focused on the right things at the right time.

Conclusion

We are entering an era where millennium models of development are rapidly disappearing. COVID catalyzed change that was already well underway. If it wasn’t already in your organization, it was coming and now it’s here. I predict topic and course led development departments will be largely absent in successful businesses in the coming years.

"We need the development to happen simultaneously with performance, through well-planned and supported frameworks for leaders"

We need the development to happen simultaneously with performance, through well-planned and supported frameworks for leaders, in the flow of work. For us as practitioners and leaders in this space, that requires new skills and approach, to know how and what the right things are, and put this in the hands of the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

Call to action:

(1) Partner with leaders to design simple agile solutions to support the actual routine and irregular challenges that your people face.

(2) Don’t look to a vendor to solve your challenges. Equally, don’t try to copy and paste a support mechanism model from another organization.

(3) Hold ourselves openly accountable for the impact our solutions have in the real world.

Scary? Actually, no. Wonderful things happen when we walk around the other side of the table, and partner in real solutions to real challenges.

• You get a ‘seat at the table’ rather than hovering by the door waiting for an order to be placed for your shop.

• Accountability?  Even the smallest recognition of the contributed to address real challenges is more credible to your leadership and stakeholders, than any amount of learning outcomes and 100 percent course happy sheets.

Remember, No one cares about your program or your policy.  They care if you are genuinely engaged alongside them, in getting meaningful results, through enabling people and systems to improve.

Weekly Brief

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