Forget ‘fail fast’

This is how to succeed in meeting your business and technology challenges.

Most leadership programmes fail to deliver their anticipated value. The need for better leadership from those already in position, and for the next generation of new leaders, continues at a pace. So the programmes continue. But most will fail.

Who says so? Well, the Harvard Business Review knows a thing or two about leadership development, and recently published an article that showed the “traditional approach to leadership development doesn’t serve the needs of companies anymore.”[1]

The authors suggest an overhaul in leadership development is necessary. They outline an approach they say is “far superior to traditional leadership development programs”.

Fortunately, at Catalyst we have been using this approach since the early 2000s, and now have what we believe is the most successful offering in the world. Banks like Citigroup, HSBC, JPMorganChase, Deutsche Bank, Societe Generale, RBS and Bank of America have chosen us year after year to develop their technology leaders.

Our approach is built on a small number of ‘golden rules’ that we assiduously follow:

1. Start with the end in mind

The starting point is to banish the distinction between learning about leadership and pursuing critical business goals. This distinction causes leadership development to be abstracted from its day-to-day reality, with leaders sent on “far-flung educational programs hoping they return with “big” insights about themselves and the world (Samani & Thomas, 2015).”

When we design an Enterprise Engineer programme at Catalyst we start with the big business challenges Technology faces and will face in the years ahead. We then work with our clients to create a ‘blueprint’ of the kind of person needed to meet these challenges, describing in detail the specific attributes that will help them succeed. Our psychologists and behavioural experts translate these attributes into observable and measurable behaviours in the context of their day-to-day jobs. This makes the descriptions concrete and avoids abstract terms like ‘engage’, ‘motivate’ and ‘strategic’, the staple fare of traditional leadership programmes.

The result is a behavioural model that looks nothing like a traditional leadership model, but which is viewed as gold dust by our clients. As one of them said when we showed him the blueprint: “Give me 250 people who look just like that!” 2018 marks the 10th year of that bank’s Enterprise Engineer programme, and although the blueprint has changed to meet changing demands, the need for people who match it continues unabated.

2. Give them real problems to solve

The HBR article goes on to say that leaders need to be developed “while working on projects of their choosing that create new value for the company”, allowing them to “improvise” in terms of how they tackle these projects. These projects are done ‘side of desk’, supported by expert coaching.

Participants attending Catalyst’s programmes are given a small number of projects from which they choose one to work on. The projects have been carefully selected to target real business needs. Unlike typical multi-year projects with large teams that eat up huge resources, these projects have short-term deliverables that are required in the next 6-8 months and do not have to go through an extensive funding and approval process before they are launched. They deliver value quickly, where it is needed, and help the organisation take advantage of opportunities that need to be grabbed quickly to keep ahead of the competition.

These are genuine technology projects, and they are often exploratory. They allow new technologies to be investigated and evaluated ahead of the organisation making major investment decisions, and can often inform such decisions.

3. Give participants leeway in deciding how they execute the project.

We want to develop their leadership capability not their ability to follow directions. There is no formal hierarchy within the team so no one performs a role under the direction of others. This builds a sense of responsibility and accountability. They realise they are responsible for delivering on their project, so manage their autonomy professionally.

We also encourage the team to challenge the project sponsor where appropriate. Again, this is about developing their capability to lead, so in the spirit of genuine collaboration we encourage a partnership with the sponsor rather than the ‘boss/subordinate’ relationship that often characterises projects outside the programme.

4. Link the projects to the classroom learning

The participants are encouraged to apply the skills, tools and techniques they learn during the classroom element the programme. The latter are introduced specifically in relation to their projects and their daily challenges, rather than in an abstract or theoretical way. So we say “This is how you can deal with a sponsor who is about to make a poor decision based on a narrow understanding of the technology”, rather than “today we are going to learn about Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion”.

They also are required to develop and apply the behaviours contained in the leadership model underpinning the blueprint of a technology leader. These behaviours help them succeed in important tasks central to their project (e.g. collaborating with other teams outside the programme that might be working in this area), so participants quickly see the value of the model and are motivated to develop the behaviours. This is underpinned by the introduction of various leadership and management tools that can help in this process, such as a structure for teams to build collaboration when there are strong and divergent opinions.

Like the projects mentioned by the HBR authors, these projects deliver real value running into millions of pounds. As a result, our programmes become self-financing and an important revenue stream, which is partly why no single Catalyst programme in any bank has ever been axed over the 15 years we have been running them.

5. Allow them to innovate

Authors Samani and Thomas also refer to the importance of allowing participants to innovate as a way of building commitment and a sense of purpose to the outcomes of their work. In Catalyst’s programmes we hold a 24-hour hackathon where participants can develop an idea into a minimal viable product which they pitch to business and innovation heads the following day. There is a strict rule of ‘no PowerPoint’ to encourage dynamic and passionate demonstrations of the proposed technology rather than a dry set of slides.

These hackathons can go on to attract real funding, perhaps through an intrapreneur programme like the kind mentioned by Samani and Thomas. Like the projects in our programmes, the hackathons provide a vehicle for participants to learn and apply new skills, such as building support for a proposal, demonstrating a commercial mindset, creative thinking, and applying thought leadership. As one participant said recently, “I never thought I could be innovative but I pitched an idea forward for the hackathon. It felt great.” Also like the projects, ideas taken to fruition can deliver real commercial value and business benefits.

6. Bring the business into the classroom

Sometimes it is not possible to reflect all the challenges technology leaders face through project work. So we use business simulations to bring the critical aspects of these challenges into the classroom. These simulations are developed jointly with the bank to reflect accurately the situations and scenarios it wants the technology leaders to handle effectively. We will even bring in senior executives to play cameo roles within these scenarios, requiring participants to handle meetings with them or give presentations as part of the exercise. They then receive real-time feedback from the executive. Although these are simulations, participants tell us they are extremely powerful learning experiences.

To help them succeed, their preparation involves learning skills that can help, such as how to handle a dominant individual who is not prepared to listen to alternative views. We also provide them with powerful tools that provide a structure and process in which to demonstrate these skills.

7. Involve the business AND Learning and Development

Many development programmes are sponsored and driven by L&D or HR departments, with the business barely involved other than through guest presentations. We believe this is a serious omission. The business need to be a co-sponsor of the programme as they are the major beneficiary. This will mean they help drive the direction and content, ensuring it enables them to achieve their business and strategic goals. With this kind of backing, the programme becomes a key enabler of the organisation’s strategy and much more than an inward-looking development programme.

8. Don’t mention ‘Leadership’

The starting point is always the challenges participants face or can expect to face in their roles. We never start with an abstract theory or technique and then say ‘think about how and where you might apply this when you go back to your desks’. In this way we maximise the transfer of learning back into the workplace.

In a further attempt to distance our Expert and Enterprise Engineer programmes  from traditional approaches, we never use the word ‘leadership’, either in their  titles or the course materials. The programmes are all about helping people meet the challenges they face by learning some skills and techniques that will  help.

It is worth finishing with the words of Samani and Thomas:

“Methods like these are far superior to traditional leadership development programs for generating leaders who can lead in the world as it is today. You don’t have time to waste – and neither do your future leaders”.

[1] Your Leadership Development Program Needs an Overhaul

Note: This opinion piece was first published by Catalyst prior to the Sionic merger

About the author

I help organisations and the individuals within them change and develop; to be better, more effective and have a positive impact on the clients and society they serve.