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Leadership and talent

Looking at the key objectives of running leadership programmes

Talking Talent works with over 150 organisations to help them with building inclusive cultures and ensuring diverse talent realise their full potential.

Clients are often looking to deliver executive or ‘fast-track’ leadership programmes for diverse talent and the key stakeholders who have a direct influence on that talent’s career success. They typically want sophisticated, tailored programmes, recognising that diverse talent often has a very different experience of the organisation, its culture and their careers, than the majority.

The efficacy of this work has grown, with organisations increasingly understanding that employee groups who find themselves on the outside of the majority can feel as though they do not truly fit or belong. This in turn can lead to challenges of retention and the well-documented impact on the diversity of senior teams, leaving the danger of a monoculture at the top.

Do not lose sight of the business case

Given the current economic context, one of the key questions we get asked right now is whether leadership and talent programmes should continue? Is a focus on a distinct employee population, in the hope of increasing the diversity of senior talent, the right thing to be investing in right now?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to consider the key objectives of running these programmes in the first place and why clients bother to invest in unique leadership development for distinct groups. Aside from the clear positives of retaining your most talented people and avoiding the significant costs of replacement, this then provides some distinct advantages.

Increased engagement leads to better performance, both individual and collective. It also provides far greater diversity of experience, background and thinking, which is essential to driving innovation. We are facing some of the most extraordinary business challenges of the last century and this will have a profound effect on macro-economics, R&D, supply chains, staffing, finance and almost every other function.

Organisations are going to need diverse talent around the table to arrive at create innovative solutions. Monocultures will not cut it. You need the most capable leaders to be at their best. Those with the strongest leadership capability will be far more likely to thrive and survive. It is also worth acknowledging that during the 2008 financial crisis we saw organisations lose a decade of progress around gender diversity over less than 12 months.

Key decisions on organisation restructuring and the pause on focused development and inclusion programmes had a dramatically negative consequence. The number of women who lost their jobs through voluntary or involuntary redundancies, and the ground lost to finding better balanced pipelines, was profound as organisations retrenched.

Given we have already paused gender pay gap reporting, could we be seeing the system slipping back into the same cycle? It’s telling which organisations are still reporting on the gender pay gap, despite the government’s ‘holiday’. Let’s make sure we do not repeat the same mistakes of the last downturn.

Leadership commitment and clear communications from the top

To run these leadership programmes effectively there needs to be a proper commitment from executives and leaders for the long term. It needs time, resource and commitment. It also needs very precise communications to remove any stigma associated with leadership programmes for women or diverse groups.

This helps encourage colleagues to participate fully. If this is not done, the programme can either be viewed as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, or as a programme to encourage women to behave more like the male majority.

As Dan Simpson, Global Head of Organisation Growth at Siemens put it: “I have seen tangible evidence that the programme works. It works because it starts from a simple, but powerful belief; none of the women need to be made into a stereotyped model of masculine leadership. Instead, the work is focused and powerful; become the best version of yourself.”

When done effectively the programmes are commercially driven, tied back to the organisation’s desire to execute its strategy more effectively and with clear measures of success. Tracking the data to show the achievement of those objectives and a clear ROI ensures legitimacy for the long term.

The right programme structure is fundamental

One thing that is critical to the success of women’s leadership programmes is the focus on the system as well as the participants. The involvement and education of key stakeholders including senior leadership, line managers and HR professionals is fundamental to lasting systemic change.

If you want diverse talent to thrive you need to better understand the systemic barriers to inclusive cultures. Leaders and managers need to take personal responsibility for creating more inclusive cultures.

Programmes that combine development opportunities for participants with the involvement of their key stakeholders, whether they are sponsors, line managers or senior leaders, create lasting change. It is also worth recognising that this is a commitment that is required over an extended time frame – lasting behavioural and cultural change does not happen overnight. Clients put multiple cohorts through the programme over a number of years to better balance their talent pipeline.

As Sue Gammons, Coaching Director at GSK explained: “In addition to 1:1 and group coaching, participants in GSK’s Accelerating Difference have a senior leader sponsor to advocate for their career progression and participants, their managers and sponsors come together for a facilitated conversation about what helps and hinders career progression. This systemic approach to change has contributed to a steady rise in the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in the last six years.”

Cohorts come together periodically over six to 12 months as we look to derive deeper shifts in self-confidence and enhanced leadership capabilities. You can’t do this by putting people in front of a TED talk video or key speakers. Understanding oneself is a key aspect of the programme success. As one delegate explained: “I have better awareness of my leadership style, strengths and weakness. The honest feedback from peers was invaluable. The sessions increased my self-awareness. I am far more confident now.”

Psychological safety and the need to get beneath the surface

In order to truly address the often unintentional inequities faced by those people outside the majority, it’s necessary to create the right learning environments for individuals to really open up about how they experience their organisations, teams and colleagues. Leaders and managers need to be open to dialogues about those lived experiences and ways that they can take a leadership role in shifting cultures and behaviours, sometimes their own.

This requires expert coaching and facilitation to be a success – the psychological safety of all involved is paramount. Focusing on some of the cornerstone behaviours when creating inclusive teams and cultures is at the core; making it safe to speak up, diverse opinions and points of view are listened to and credited, leaders respond constructively to feedback and solutions are collectively owned.

What happens when you succeed?

Talent is more engaged, stays longer and performs better. Diversity at senior levels increases. Our data over 15 years shows that. In the first two years of running Lloyds Bank Group’s programme, of the 255 women who attended, 42% achieved a promotion, that rose to 54% when you included those who had a change in role to help them gain broader business experience and 64% had taken on additional responsibility.

A professional services firm has reduced turnover of women at management levels from 70% to 19% over five years. Cultures start to change. Behaviours and practices that exclude members of the team get challenged. Levels of respect, support and collaboration increase. Individuals start to report that they feel that they are better placed to make their strongest contribution.

Line managers more regularly ask colleagues what support they need in order to succeed and critically, they then follow through on that. As one programme sponsor observed: “The programme has been integral to our goal to drive a high-performance culture where everyone is supported to reach their potential. It has contributed to increased activity around gender diversity across our office population – I’m delighted that this is positively reflected in the numbers of women at the most senior levels of our business.”

How can these leadership skills translate to helping lead in the current crises?

One of the residual gains of the programme has been the capability of participants and their managers to lead more effectively and inclusively through the COVID-19 crises. Their ability to communicate well, to listen to people’s hopes and fears more intently, to ensure all voices get heard and to harness the power of diverse teams to solve complex problems; everyone’s ideas count.

An ability for leaders to communicate honestly, humanely and with vulnerability is also key. None of us has all the answers. Inclusive leadership builds trust that decisions, while at times difficult, will be made fairly and with all key stakeholders’ perspectives considered. Our clients who continue to focus on diverse leadership and inclusive work practices are ahead of the game in response to COVID-19. They are coming up with extraordinary innovations and will be far more likely to thrive during this difficult time.

Chris Parke is CEO of Talking Talent

1st October 2020

Chris Parke is CEO of Talking Talent

1st October 2020

From: Marketing

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