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  • Writer's pictureKATE EARLE

Leaders Can't Do It Alone

For more than 20 years, our team has been working side by side with leaders to help them grow their people and business. We have made significant investments in developing our own leadership capabilities and helping our clients build the case for doing the same in their organizations.

And the data supports this investment. If the value of investing in leadership development is ever in doubt, we love citing compelling statistics such as these from the Center for Creative Leadership:

  • Financial performance: Companies that rate highly in leadership development deliver stock market returns 5X higher than their peers

  • Navigating change: 85% of companies with strong leadership development programs are able to respond more rapidly and effectively in unpredictable business environments

  • Employee engagement: Development connects leaders with the culture and network of the organization and that impacts engagement up to 2X

Who doesn’t want these sorts of returns? We’ve prided ourselves on championing the cause for leadership development and being part of the solution.

But lately I’ve been thinking we’ve got it all wrong.

The Way We’re Developing Leaders Isn’t Working

There are strong signals that current approaches to leadership development actually aren’t working. According to, organizations spend $366B on leadership development globally yet 75% of companies think their leadership development programs are ineffective. Two out of three employees continue to say that their boss is the worst part of their job. And DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast indicates by the end of each work day 60% of leaders admit to feeling completely burnt out.

Seems to me like we keep pouring water into a leaky bucket.

If leadership really does matter (which we continue to believe) how might we set leaders up for success differently than we’re doing today?

I think the answer has been in front of us all along: strengthen the entire team.

A Rising Team Lifts all Leaders

You know the aphorism “A rising tide lifts all boats”? I’ve come to believe “a rising team lifts all leaders.” When every member of a team has the opportunity to grow in unison, the entire team rises, making conditions more favorable for leadership to thrive.

The concept of synchronized development is an important one. Teams are living systems. Our industry’s current bias towards developing leaders prioritizes only one element of that diverse system. It’s comparable to exercising only one of our limbs and expecting the rest of the body will get healthy along with it. If only it were that easy.

Beyond Leadership Development to Team Development

In light of this “aha” moment, our team has been shifting our practice from developing leaders to developing teams. We’re partnering with intact teams (and their leaders!) to help them identify how they want to work together more effectively and commit to making those changes within the flow of their daily interactions.

Here are a few insights we’re learning along the way.

Beyond Big Moves to Small Moves.

When a team is underperforming, the norm seems to be to make big moves: new leadership, new org structure, new technology, new processes, new methodology, etc. Sometimes those big moves are needed but oftentimes they’re unnecessarily disruptive to the team system and create more problems than they solve. We’re finding that when you create the space and habit for teams to be self-aware, they identify all sorts of creative ways to fine tune how they’re thinking about and doing their work together. These small moves have big impacts.

Beyond What/How to Why/Way.

In general, most teams are able to describe what they do (i.e., their function) and how they do it (i.e., their process). But when we ask teams to explain why they work together in the way that they do we’re met with befuddled looks. Teams are notorious for adopting ways of working without consciously choosing whether those particular rituals and routines are best suited for their objectives. The What and the How matter, but helping teams get to the root of the Why and the Way is essential.

Beyond Team Dynamics to Ways of Working.

When you start talking about team effectiveness over leader effectiveness, many people assume you’re referring to team dynamics, meaning interpersonal relationships among team members. No doubt the quality of those relationships is critical. However, a team’s overall effectiveness is also dependent on their shared mindsets and commitment to ways of working that drive strategic priorities. So yes it’s about relationships but it’s also about how those relationships translate into getting work done together.

Beyond Knowing to Doing.

Reflection is a critical part of any learning process. Looking in the rearview mirror creates more awareness of what you want to start, stop or continue doing as you move ahead. But good intentions don’t automatically translate into better ways of working. We find that teams generally know what they want to be doing differently but struggle to apply that knowing in the fray of the day-to-day. To help teams shift from knowing to doing, team development needs to move out of the classroom and into a team’s daily interactions.

Beyond DEIB as Common Sense to Common Practice.

Teams are microcosms of the larger organizational ecosystem. When you put a team under the microscope, what’s revealed are patterns that reflect what’s happening across the broader system. Many of those patterns highlight what diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) look like in action (or lack thereof). Helping teams understand and embrace the full power of DEIB at the micro level ultimately has macro effects. This approach shifts DEIB from being common sense to common practice.

Moving beyond leadership development to team development fosters the collective intelligence of teams, , which, as the folks at Kellogg Insights put it, “is separate from the combined intelligence of their team members.” This collective intelligence fosters trust, collaboration, ingenuity, resilience, and belonging, which make conditions ripe for leaders to truly shine. We still need to develop our leaders, but we also need to ensure that the systems we send them into are primed for what they have to offer.

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