Leadership development is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States (and growing). Leaders at all levels of organizations routinely enjoy training and coaching around a range of competencies, skills, and behaviors in an effort to enhance their abilities to work well with and through others. Leadership development is a ‘go-to’ strategy for organizations looking to elevate engagement, performance, innovation, quality, and bottom-line results.
Over the past decade, savvy practitioners have advanced the field. Now leaders can learn through the use of sophisticated assessments and technology-enabled content delivery such as webinars, vILT, and elearning. But for the most part, though methodologies have changed, we’re still addressing the substance of leadership much like we’ve done for decades. And that’s a problem because the workplace and the employees within it have changed… substantially.
The Changing Landscape Changes Learning
No one will argue that today’s business landscape is the most volatile, information-rich, complex, stressful, and competitive environment leaders have ever had to face. Globalization. Doing more (lots more) with less (frequently lots less). Ever-escalating customer expectations.
In response, leaders work feverishly to do it all. They practice constant connectivity, checking email an average of 288 times daily according to Jacob Morgan in his Forbes post. They buy into the illusion of multitasking as a means to enhance productivity. They expend as little energy as possible on non-essential activities…like breathing. (Research suggests that 80% of us breathe shallowly during the act of reading email or otherwise working on a computer, a condition that Linda Stone labeled email apnea.) Leaders are giving their all… and for too many organizations, that’s just not enough.
At the same time that the business environment is changing, so are the learners. Employees in the workplace today grew up with team projects in elementary school and received leadership training as early as 6th grade. High schools and colleges are working harder than ever to meet the demand to provide real-world skills and preparation. So in larger and larger numbers, employees are joining our ranks with a solid understanding of some key leadership fundamentals.
Newer leaders are digital natives. They intuitively know how to quickly search out what they need, whether it’s how to correct a technology glitch or conduct a performance review. They don’t feel compelled to memorize routines, trusting that they’re just a click away.
Finally, our connected world means that models of leadership – good and bad – are ubiquitous. Reruns of The Office are as instructive as the inspirational leadership stories that are the mainstay of articles, books, and social media posts.
Unnerving Questions for Learning and Development Leaders
As a result of the changing complexion of the landscape and of the learners, training and development professionals must ask themselves some fundamental (and perhaps unsettling) questions.
- Do leaders really need one more feedback model, the five critical steps to effective delegating, or the ‘how to’s’ for running a meeting?
- Does the current approach to development contribute to overwhelm and overload?
- Are we trying to stuff one more piece of information into the already overflowing brains of leaders?
- Might there be an alternative to mind-full-ness (and the stress and confusion it induces in many)?
And one more question: Is it time for a different approach to leadership development – a mindful one that focuses less on content and events and more on helping leaders identify and set clear intentions for their interactions with others?
“When we take the briefest of moments to set clear, positive intentions for what we’re doing, the payback is enormous. We can make a remarkable shift in how any assignment, conversation, or meeting feels just by considering where we want to place our attention.”
– Caroline Webb, Change Your Intention to Focus Your Attention, HBR Blog
‘Mindfulness’ goes far beyond the cliché of meditating while humming ‘om’. It’s defined as the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” And it’s nothing new. It’s been around for centuries and has become a popular tool for responding to many of the challenges associated with 21st century life.
The new frontier, however, is an opportunity to leverage mindfulness to enhance learning and apply it to drive intention and intentional results. Intention is a powerful instructional innovation for those willing to revisit ‘learning as usual’.
Consider for a moment some of the most effective feedback you’ve received – insights or guidance that really helped you improve. What do you remember about the interaction? It’s likely not the way the other person executed the conversation, but rather his purpose and motivation to help you grow. And you know why?
Because the verbal formula a leader might follow matters far less than the intentions he or she brings to the interaction. Motivation nearly always trumps techniques. The spirit of the message generally overrides its syntax. And what comes from the heart frequently speaks louder than what comes out of a leader’s mouth.
Reflect and Select: An Intentional Framework
Intention matters… a lot. So, perhaps it’s time to begin supplementing our traditional focus on specific leadership skills, steps, and processes with a broader and more general framework that encourages leaders to focus their attention on intention rather than behaviors.
Instead of providing discrete skill training, what if we taught leaders to:
- Reflect – take a moment to consider the situation, what’s happening, their thoughts and feelings; and
- Select – consciously choose their intention for the situation, the most important goal or objective they want to achieve?
Replacing traditional skills training with a focus on intention allows leaders to access what they already know how to do (or instantaneously research what they don’t) in service of a deliberate decision about what they want to achieve. It enables them to set a positive intent (or walk away from a situation in which one recognizes a negative or unproductive intention) and improve their outcomes in the process.
The ability to ‘reflect’ and ‘select’ represent high-value, high-impact skills required by business today – skills that have the capacity to enrich and enhance every other leadership and interpersonal competency, which in turn can drive powerful results. Even so, many organizations are not prepared to welcome “Intro to Leadership Intentions” or “Reflect & Select for Managers” to their course catalogues.
The good news is that there are countless ways to incorporate a focus on intention into leadership (and other) training with no new-age fanfare.
A case in point: The senior executives of a national insurance company prepared to roll out a new career development process and curriculum by simply reflecting on the leaders who had helped them grow most over their careers. As a group, they explored the actions and behaviors that had made the biggest difference. They set intentions for the ‘developers of people’ they wanted to be for those who report to them… and began acting upon those intentions. Early data indicates that 69% of employees polled already recognize that talent management is a top organizational priority.
There are countless ways to bring intention into the leadership learning arena:
- Offer a powerful alternative to the standard pre-work formula. Ask participants to reflect on the most challenging interactions they’ve had over the past few days, and list out their genuine intentions in each case. A brief group discussion will quickly make the connection between intent and outcomes, helping to build a case for greater mindfulness.
- Launch learning with a segment, even a brief one, dedicated to helping each individual determine his/her overall intention for the experience. Encourage participants to check in with those intentions occasionally during the session; and end by revisiting them.
- Engage in dialogue and build awareness of cues that cause participants to lose sight of or shift their intentions. Greater self-awareness leads to more conscious choices in challenging situations.
- Encourage leaders to set objectives or goals (intentions) for challenging and simple interactions alike.
- Build questions like ‘what was your intention?’ into your coaching repertoire to telegraph its importance and train leaders to reflect honestly.
- Replace detailed action planning (that is too frequently cast aside as unrealistic) with streamlined intention setting… and back it up with tools and reminders in the workplace.
- Encourage relevant follow-up that includes journaling, documenting or discussing situations from a ‘reflect and select’ perspective.
Caveats and Closing Thoughts
Can a focus on intention replace all organizational training? Of course not. Compliance, technical competencies, job certifications and similar content will always demand and benefit from traditional skill-building frameworks and methods. (Although you may want to consider some intention-based elements for even better results.)
But, when it comes to leadership, history is filled with examples of great leaders who were driven by purpose. Are they remembered for the technical dimensions of their work, whether they followed the four-part feedback process, or adhered to the seven-step problem solving methodology? Probably not. Long after their actions are forgotten, their intentions remain.
The training and development world is at an inflection point with the opportunity to change learning as usual, reset our instructional course, and contribute even more powerfully to business results. And it’s all a matter of mining the intention/instruction intersection.
Mindfulness Goes Mainstream
No longer the domain of monks and mediation, mindfulness has taken its place in American society. Recently featured on the cover of Time Magazine, it’s emerging as a legitimate and recognized response to any number of contemporary issues and challenges.
Organizations like Apple, Google, Proctor & Gamble and General Mills support mindfulness and as a result enjoy bottom-line results through enhanced employee health and well-being, productivity, performance, teamwork, job satisfaction, and retention.
The healthcare profession has begun to embrace mindfulness as a means to help manage pain, anxiety, and a range of medical conditions. Even the divorce industry is leveraging mindfulness as it markets ‘conscious decoupling’, a research-based mindful process for reducing the negative effects of separation.
- Learners are more savvy than they used to be, entering the workplace with more leadership concepts, training, and experience than employees of the past.
- Our contemporary “mind-full” development approach – which involves filling leaders’ heads with more information – may not serve organizations or individuals.
- Today’s business environment may demand a more “mindful” leadership development approach, one that focuses instead on the leaders’ intentions relative to their interactions their interactions.
- Rather than detailed, prescribed skills training, leaders benefit from learning to reflect on the situation and select the intention or outcome they want to achieve.
- Leading with purpose, not protocol, will achieve greater results.