Leadership Academy

Rome wasn’t built in a day – and neither is a good leader!

Posted by: Chris Lake - Posted on:

In his latest blog, Chris Lake, head of professional development at the NHS Leadership Academy, explores the different ways leaders obtain their and knowledge, skills and behaviours.

A piece of research in the 90s asked successful senior leaders in a range of different organisations where they thought they had got their skills and knowledge from. Their response looked roughly like this:

  • 10% came from training and development programmes and structured courses
  • 20% came from one-to-one conversations, with colleagues and through coaching or mentoring
  • 70% came from just doing the job and learning on the go (best when the assignments are challenging rather than repetitive)

Morgan McCall and his colleagues working at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) are usually credited with originating this 70:20:10 ratio – two of his colleagues, Lombardo and Eichinger, referred to McCall’s study in their 1996 book ‘The Career Architect Development Planner’.

The model makes perfect sense when understood, but it’s been misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied more frequently than it’s been put to use well. The fact that 10% of skills and knowledge were found to come from training seems to have been (mis)interpreted by some as “don’t spend more than 10% of your time undertaking purposeful development”.

Indeed, the research and model never had anything to do with the investment of time (see this review). The ratio refers to where people got their capabilities from – not how long they spent getting them!

When the ratio is misunderstood, it risks squeezing out profound personal and professional development in favour of shallow, tactical training rather than impactful, behavioural development for leaders. Developing a fully-rounded competent leader – especially in health and care – means paying attention to four elements: knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours. As someone who designs programmes, the methodologies I would use to develop these four things are very different.

Knowledge is content – for example, do you ‘know’ the structure and responsibilities of Arm’s Length Bodies, or the values of the NHS Constitution, or the HR policy on bullying and harassment? Content can be ‘taught’ didactically by a lecturer (although that’s often a dull way to learn and an expensive way to teach), by studying, or through engaging online learning.

Skills are our abilities to put knowledge into useful and competent action. Almost by definition, we develop skills by practising – by action, review, understanding and planning to act again (that’s the Kolb learning cycle – as good today as in the 70s when it was first published). Juggling is a skill – you can’t learn it in theory, only through trial, error, practice and improvement. In the 70:20:10 model, this is where the majority of the ‘70’ comes from – on the job work-based learning.

But, knowledge and skills are very different from attitudes – which need a completely different approach for development. This is because attitudes are ‘values in action’. To develop someone’s attitude, we are asking them to explore, unpack, review and develop their values. And this can be deep stuff!

Is it appropriate to actively seek to develop a leader’s values? Too right it is! You’ll have heard the phrase that people join organisations, but they leave managers. It’s often the attitudes of bosses that people find hard to tolerate.

More, we know that leaders that inspire people to raise their performance are those that speak to our hearts, that embody values that engender commitment and loyalty, that help people find meaning in their work. And let’s face it – we work in the NHS, guided by the values of the NHS Constitution, in a system meant to care for the health and wellbeing of the nation. How we deport our attitudes is vital.

Behaviour is where all the complexities of the knowledge, skills and attitudes come together in what one actually does. While behaviour is external by definition, it is driven by our inner selves, formed at the level of our self-esteem, limited by our level of self-awareness, and moderated by our in-the-moment awareness of our impact on others.

Developing attitudes and ever-more effective behaviours is about looking within, about being reflexive. It’s about asking oneself the fundamental question of leadership: ‘What is it like to be on the receiving end of me?’ It’s about seeking out and genuinely listening to feedback, having honest conversations with colleagues up, down and across your organisation and stakeholder network and reflecting on one’s impact.

The NHS is strapped for cash and social care has had money stripped out of it. Performance is slipping; pressure, staff turnover and sickness absence are all going up and we’re at risk of patient care declining. In times like this, learning and development for things outside of the (simple and cheaper to train) ‘knowledge and skill’ arena can get hit hard.

In a demanding, cash-strapped climate the sadly common response is to stay firmly ensconced in management territory rather than leadership development. Some suggest we can’t afford to make the time-consuming effort and deeper work to develop attitudes and behaviours (even though in my view that’s the type of development we need the most), but should revert to plugging skills or knowledge gaps.

Was it Socrates who said ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’? Well, I’d agree; personal development, interpersonal skills development and personal growth require introspection and reflection. Anyone for a one-day leadership ‘masterclass’?

Few people have left an organisation because their boss wasn’t particularly good at writing a business case or understanding a budget, so if as HR and OD people we’re going to make our NHS more attractive for people to work in, surely that means we should invest in making our leaders great people to work for?

The end game of investment isn’t an organisation filled with technically competent managers for whom nobody wants to work. I’m not saying that management skills aren’t important – they are. Indeed when we revised The Mary Seacole programme in consultation with HR directors from across the service, we asked them what was missing from the original format.

The feedback was that more content was needed on the fundamentals of management, so four of the twelve modules are now on core management skills.

There are some terrible courses out there that purport to do something meaningful and life changing in a very short period of time – but their impact is very short-lived. You simply can’t change the culture and climate of an organisation without a piece of work that empowers human beings, managers and leaders to ask of themselves some fundamental questions about their attitudes. And attitudinal development will never be a quick fix.

So if you’ve got a training budget, do you spend it on finance workshops? Maybe. Do you spend it on pared down shallow programmes that purport to ‘teach’ leadership? No. Or do you spend it on personal and professional development for deeper interpersonal skills? The research tells us that the latter will have a higher impact on organisational performance.

Make friends with finance

Some research I saw a couple of years ago told that the thing that NHS finance directors were most worried about was staff engagement and climate. This was brilliant! You know that it’s got to a point when finance directors realise the biggest risk to their business is morale and climate.

One of the most powerful ways to make your case is to work with your finance counterpart. Together, HR and finance will make one hell of an influential pairing.
You may need to encourage your finance director to delegate worrying about the price of toilet rolls to someone else.

If your finance director is lost within the spreadsheets, they might make the procurement of basics in the organisation cheaper, but if staff turnover is high, morale low, grievances up, and climate poor, then productivity will be low and costly. The finance director’s role should be about making the organisation a nicer place to work.

When a finance director takes their eyes off the detail of budgets and business plans and asks bigger strategic questions about the performance of their organisation and what underpins it, they’ll realise that to invest in their culture, they need to invest in proper leadership development. When that becomes the answer to the question of how can we make this organisation perform to a better level, you know you’re onto a winner.

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