‘Less Is More’ Leadership Development

‘Less Is More’ Leadership Development


By Karen Voloshin, Julie Winkle Giulioni – astd.org

The simplest leadership development programs may be the most effective and sustainable.

After a lengthy moratorium on leadership development during the recent recession, many leaders in the training and development field predict that organizations will begin investing heavily again in leadership. Across geographies and industry sectors, learning professionals are hard at work determining the best strategies for rebuilding capacity for this critical audience.

Given this newfound funding and enthusiasm, it’s tempting to begin engaging in a flurry of activity—developing courseware, scheduling retreats, and so on. Resist the temptation, though. This is not the time to do more. In fact, it is still in the training and development function’s best interest to show some restraint.

Recent years have taught us how to achieve great things even while forced to use fewer resources. So instead of overbuilding solutions that will be dismantled during the next downturn, take a step back and look critically at where things currently stand. Let’s walk away from over-engineered experiences, and instead opt for elegant yet simple, functional, and highly practical development alternatives.

If your organization is entertaining the idea that less just might be more when it comes to designing leadership development offerings, take a look at the five following strategies.
Training as a learning lab

More than enough leadership content already exists in the world. Yet many training departments feel compelled to continue creating new solutions and tools for dissemination and consumption.

What if building a leadership development program began with robust assessment and coaching to help leaders crystallize their learning needs and priorities? Then, rather than having leaders attend a training session that may not address their specific needs, they could amass their own material. Think: learning scavenger hunt. Imagine individuals finding exactly the information they need through books, articles, blogs, and the range of other resources now at everyone’s fingertips.

With content tailored to their learning needs and goals, leaders can then construct their own behavioral processes, checklists, and steps for success—all before ever attending a class. When leaders finally do come together, they can focus on exploring opportunities, practicing interactions, receiving feedback, and developing a community of practice and support for the future. Less training can deliver more relevance, commitment, and results.
Reconcile rallying points

If yours is like most organizations, it has some combination of values, credos, visions, goals, philosophies, guiding principles, mission, culture statements, value propositions, and commitments—with training to support each. Many leaders have learned first-hand that this is too much of a good thing because they can never remember it all. And if they can remember it, they certainly can’t do it all.

In the spirit of “less is more,” an alternate approach is to help executives pare down such content. When you filter out superfluous information and expectations and hone in on what’s most important to the business as a whole, you can help leaders focus on the true critical priorities.

Untrain unproductive behaviors

Leadership behaviors and habits are built over time—layer upon layer. The result often is inconsistency and mixed messages. Why do we so often try to fix the problem by adding another layer of training? The solution may be counterintuitive, but consider the opposite: untraining.

Untraining is aimed at simplification. It’s about stripping the layers back to get to the fundamental best practices. You identify and eliminate the tasks that have little or no value.
Bring groups of leaders together or coach them individually to answer these simple yet powerful questions about their current leadership practices:

  • What should I keep doing because I know it works?
  • What’s working that I should increase or do more of?
  • What am I not doing that I should be doing?
  • What should I stop doing because it adds no or limited value?

Encourage leaders to make conscious choices that will make them more effective—even if it goes against what they have been taught to do in previous training.

Employees lead the leaders

So much of the success of leadership development involves a commitment to practicing new behaviors on the job. Organizations engage in elaborate and expensive accountability processes—frequently with disappointing results.

The truth is that accountability for leadership development is much simpler to achieve than many think. There is a completely untapped resource that can hold leaders accountable and provide the most relevant and targeted on-the-job support possible: the leader’s employees.

These individuals are on the ground and closest to the day-to-day action. They understand the effects and consequences of their leader’s behavior. As “customers” of a leader’s approach, they are in the best position to observe, provide feedback, and hold leaders accountable.

Effectively involving employees in this way requires less effort than might be expected. First, have leaders describe their intentions to their staff and share learning priorities and key focus areas. Next, implement a simple system in which the leader’s employees can provide behavioral feedback. Ask leaders to set aside time each week for brief meetings that will gauge progress, reinforce movement in the right direction, and redirect attention as necessary.


As learning and development practitioners, we often think we are adding value by introducing new takes on what is essentially still the same. We call this “skill-o-rama.” Here’s how skill-o-rama can play out in practice:

  • Training redefines a skill using new or different steps or processes.
  • Training presents an “updated” model.
  • Training brings in a different supplier to offer a fresh approach to the same content.

Too often something new is added, but nothing is taken away. This ultimately sends mixed messages about what it takes to be successful.

If you want to put an end to skill-o-rama in your organization, you need to be ruthless at identifying the few mission-critical skills, and work at expanding skills through context and complexity rather than through more content. You also must be able to describe, in measurable terms, what success looks like at each leadership level, and then reconcile models, courses, and approaches with those parameters. Finally, as with all learning efforts, you need to challenge leaders with relevant activities and assignments that they can use back on the job.

Creating leadership development programs is more straightforward than it often appears. Just remember:

  • keep it simple
  • keep it lean
  • go for impact, not quantity
  • let learners drive the content and the application that matters most to them.

So, take a moment, sit back, and breathe a sigh of relief. And keep in mind that in today’s complex and busy workplace, less just might be more.

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