Why Traditional Leadership Development Programs So Often Fail to Make a Difference - And What to Do

The Need for Leaders:

The importance of science and technology to our way of life is generally taken for granted, however in a world where it has been said that the general population is nearly scientifically illiterate, the various roles that science based professionals are called on to fulfill are increasingly significant. In our complex global society our scientific and technical communities are facing new challenges, whether it be moving beyond the bench into leadership roles within an organization, starting up their own company to take their technology to the market, or providing credible information to non-scientists for government policy making decisions, to name just a few examples. Yet to often their scientific training has done little to adequately prepare them for the transition from technical expert to a leader required to influence others.

The Challenge:

The solution most often used In the past was to send the science professionals to courses to learn how to become better leaders. But traditional leadership development programs, heavily weighted to 'learning how to lead', have too often failed to produce the level of leadership behaviour needed for success in to-day's society. In a large part this is because the hurdles that scientists and technical specialists must overcome to become better leaders have been under-estimated, and therefore under-addressed.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that they must change their behaviour if they want to see the results that they desire - and this is one of the most difficult things to do, especially when all their training has been counter-productive to improving leadership, a group activity versus individual effort.

The Hurdles:

There are four key areas that need to be considered and addressed to improve leadership development programs within the science-based communities. They are:

1) Their Natural Tendencies;
2) Their Training;
3) Academia and Workplace Culture, and
4) The Brain's Natural Hard-wiring

1) Their Natural Tendencies:

People who enter the science and technology fields tend to:

* be highly task oriented and analytical in nature;
* have a strong belief in the superiority of logic;
* be objective and rely on hard data,
* think they need more data when in doubt, or maybe they don't have the right data
* get caught in 'analysis paralysis'
* be deeply committed to their work
* become so focussed on their work that they loose contact with the people around them
* become frustrated by what they see as the illogical actions of others, and
* often see people as obstacles

One scientist, after becoming an Executive Director, remarked that she loved the job - if only she "just didn't have to deal with people!"

Traditional leadership development programs, rooted in providing facts and information in a typical classroom setting where scientists 'learn' new skills, are easy for them - they 'get' the information on a cerebral level. However moving it into action isn't necessarily on their radar screens. The lack of action around new information is not uncommon and Pfeffer and Sutton (2000) have referred to it as the "knowing-doing gap", a not uncommon situation in knowledge based industries that limits performance even when the knowledge is present. Without a strategy and support to move knowledge into action back in the workplace, it is unlikely that behaviour will change and therefore few beneficial results will occur. This is a major factor in the often reported low R.O.I. identified from 'soft skills' training.

2) Their Training

Not only does the traditional scientific training not adequately prepare science based professionals for dealing with others, it often results in widening the chasm between them and the rest of the population.

Academic training in the sciences has a tendency to:

* promote the superiority of the logical approach
* discount feelings and emotions, since science deals with 'facts'
* place high reliance on case studies and theory based learning, the essence of education being talk and writing, not action
* gauge success by mastery of the facts, not taking action
* promote the superiority of whatever disciplines one is in
* create the impression of the superiority of science based disciplines over non-science ones
* promote the development of 'independent' thinkers
* create an atmosphere of competition, not co-operation

One scientists told me that even when he was working on a collaborative project, he was not really collaborating - he was always looking for the advantage, that 'something' that would give him an edge over his colleagues.

Once a science trained professional moves into a leadership role, or has to deal with people not like him, all his training works against the very actions that he now must take to succeed in achieving results with and through others.

3) Academia and Workplace Culture

When people enter the sciences, whether in an educational or workplace setting, they discover a culture that:

* supports traditional pay, promotion and recognition systems based on individual excellence
* sees science as serious business - with little time for idle chit-chat or relationship building
* places high value on technological fixes, discounting non-analytical approaches to problem solving
* places a high value on mental activity, reaching conclusions and making presentations (of a very technical nature of course)
* too often sees peer reviews as an opportunity to raise ones own profile rather than provide constructive feedback
* looks for individual excellence, where working on a 'team' is avoided as a potentially career limiting move.

The atmosphere created is definitely not conducive to the development of a people centric leadership approach. It is also not conducive to helping them understand the role feelings and emotions play in the workplace, not just in achieving better business results and attracting and retaining top talent, but also in things such as higher morale, motivation and commitment. Goleman (2002) has said that the best leaders are set apart from the rest by their ability to understand the powerful role played by emotions in these areas.

4) The Brain's Natural Hard-Wiring

Research has shown that our brain functions pretty much the same way it did a thousand years ago, with much of what we do the result of unconscious decisions our brain is hard-wired to make to reduce the pressure that comes from constant change and adaptation. Cooper (2006) explained that this inherent reaction to such pressure is a deeply embedded survival mechanism "designed" to have us "do whatever is necessary to avoid stress, minimize pain, eliminate surprises, fend off uncertainty, and resist change.".

This ancient survival response shows up as:

* a strong resistance to change - anything that will move one out of their comfort zone is seen as a threat by our brain
* a continuing reliance on years of training in analytical skills as the basis of a science professional's automatic response
* discounting of new information that does not support previous learning
* a search for evidence to support the existing way of doing things and current beliefs
* a tendency is to operate on automatic pilot, relying on what worked in the past.

So often it matters little how 'good' a particular leadership development program is, since the majority of them are based learning facts and concepts - not in how to make changes and take action. And as one frustrated technical expert lamented to me - "I've taken all the leadership courses available but it hasn't made any difference - people still won't do what I want!". In fact, while he had excelled in the courses, he had not changed his behaviour - so he continued to get what he'd always gotten - low morale, little participation and increasing losses from wastage.

The Solution:

Many scientists and technical experts recognize the need to become better leaders, however programs that lack the crucial support needed to translate these new skill sets into appropriate behaviours in the workplace will continue to fail to produce the desired results. And while by nature excellent observers, many science-based professionals do not observe their own actions and reflect on the impact they have on others. This is where a program that combines learning new skills with support from someone with strong communication and leadership skills and experience, cognizant of the issues and challenges the scientific community faces, can have a major impact. This is why mentoring and coaching are becoming so popular in the workplace

Experience has shown that with the ongoing support that enables them to step back and observe and reflect on what is actually happening, versus what they want to happen, they quickly identify what behaviours need to be changed and what they need to do to get the results they want. While not every science professional will want to move beyond the bench the exponential growth of information limits what any one person can achieve on their own - to be successful, they must develop the ability to work interdependently with others. Additionally, to be more effective in taking their expertise to a wider audience requires an improvement in both leadership and communication capabilities. Without ongoing support, whether from a mentor or a coach, much of the money spent on programs to develop these areas will continue to fall short of achieving the hoped for results.

There is an opportunity here to help our scientific community take their performance to new heights by providing them with programs that not only help them learn new leadership skills, but also helps them put the new knowledge into action, building the new habits they need to bring people together and create the combined synergy that produces results that go beyond the merely additive. In doing so we can ensure that the people with the science and technology expertise needed by our society are not sub-optimized because of their natural leanings, their training, their workplace culture and their hard-wired brain reactions.

Recommended Reading:

- Pfeffer, Jeffrey, Robert I. Sutton. 2000. The Knowing-Doing Gap. How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Goleman, Daniel, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee. 2002. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Cooper, Robert K. 2006. Get Out of Your Own Way: The 5 Keys to Surpassing Everyone's Expectations. New York: Crown Business.