Double take: to get more leaders ready now, don’t focus on learning

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Great leaders, ready now. It’s what every business needs. And what most are unable to achieve. The evidence is clear — across the globe investments in leadership have been steadily rising (well over 10 percent annually for more than a decade), while leadership readiness is trending backward. If you’re skeptical, check out DDI’s 2015 Leadership Forecast.
Something is clearly amiss, but what? One thing is sure: It’s not a lack of tools, technology, or process.
The truth is that we (the learning and talent management disciplines) know a great deal about how to help people learn. And we’ve become quite good at developing learning content that is relevant to business challenges. We’ve got the content and tool thing down pretty well.
The problem is that the learning methods we’ve honed for decades don’t move fast enough. Organizations need more leaders, and they need them to be ready sooner, with less experience. We have to rethink.
How can we accelerate learning and growth to keep up with the speed of change? The answer isn’t to cram more learning into the already overwhelmed lives and minds of emerging leaders. There’s a different solution.
Don’t learn, grow
What if I said that learning doesn’t matter? Or that training doesn’t do anything important? Crazy? Some might say so. But when it comes to accelerating leadership readiness, both of those statements are actually true — at least partly. Here’s why…
There’s a critical difference between learning and growth. Learning happens when you acquire new knowledge or skill, and growth happens when you use it — consistently. So yes, learning is critically important, but guess what: On average, 20 minutes after a formal learning event, 40 percent of the content is forgotten. By the end of the week, 75 percent is gone. Learning happens all the time, but growth — not so much.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Growth happens when leaders integrate what they learn into how they lead. Training or coaching or any other formal learning only matters when leaders take what they have learned and use it to address the challenges they are facing in the workplace.
So if your goal is to generate more leaders ready now, it’s dangerous to settle for learning. The only satisfactory outcome is growth.
New brand of energy
Some companies have found great success in generating a new brand of energy that sparks growth in their organizations. How do they do it?

  • By changing the way they keep score. They use different metrics for senior management and for learners so that the goals don’t focus on learning. They focus on growth.
  • By taking bigger risks. They create more powerful developmental assignments that stretch leaders into just the right experiences, at just the right times.
  • By personalizing learning pathways that lead to mastery more quickly.
  • By helping leaders embrace their unique personalities and avoid the negative patterns that some characteristics cause.
  • And they do all this, not just one leader at a time but for entire cadres of leaders who learn, and grow, together — sparking tremendous energy and excitement for everyone involved. And that leads to rapid, widespread growth.

Most of us know that it’s one thing to show up at the gym to exercise, and another thing to turn that single workout into a routine that becomes part of a lifestyle. Accelerating leadership growth works like that.
You may have found in your own work in growing leaders that simply installing one system component (like a talent review or an assessment system) can be a great deal of effort all by itself. So how is it that some organizations are managing to not only install solid system components, but sustain them, and make the growth of leadership a permanent aspect of how they operate?
The secret, once again, is energy. Remember, rapid learning generates energy — excitement and some fear — and you can manufacture it in your organization.
Keeping the fire of growth and development burning bright requires a combination of tactics and mindset. You might need to adjust your metrics of accelerated growth, but you also might need to confront your organization’s beliefs about what it means to be “ready.”

The truth is, no one can ever be totally ready for the complex world we live in. So the only viable way to respond is to always be preparing.

Matthew J. Paese, Ph.D., is vice president of Succession and C-Suite Services for Development Dimensions International (DDI). Matt’s work has centered on the application of succession, assessment, and development approaches as they apply to boards, CEOs, senior management teams, and leaders across the pipeline. He consults, coaches, speaks, and conducts research around all those topics and more. His co-authored book Leaders Ready Now was released in June and is available at