• Who's holding them back?

Readiness - Unlocking the Value of Leadership Development Programmes

By Jamie Rowland

Jamie loves helping businesses explore how better leadership capabilities can lead to better results. He is great at listening and asking the objective questions which stimulate new thinking.

By Chris Helm

Chris is fascinated by how people and businesses connect their aspirations together to create mutual benefit.

Companies today invest vast amounts of money and time in identifying and developing their people with the highest potential. So why is it that so many still fail to see the returns that the investment deserves. Why do ‘transformational’ leadership programmes only seem to deliver incremental change for the majority of those involved?

In this short article we look at the concept of readiness (both individual and organisational) and how it is the fundamental determining factor behind the level of return on investment for any leadership programme.

For the purposes of this article, we’ve looked at three scenarios, one where all the people on the programme are ‘ready’ and supported by a business that is also ‘ready’. The second looks at what happens if we add some high performers who appear to be the right candidates but are not ‘ready’ and supported. And the third looks at where we add a disruptive element.

Let’s look at our first case, where we get the right people on the programmes. People who:

  • are ready to learn and try out new approaches
  • are ready to let go of some ‘comfort zone’ skills and develop new higher-level leadership skills
  • actively look to take on new responsibilities
  • feel they will be capable of learning how to perform at the next level
  • believe they have proved enough to be given the opportunity to perform at the next level
  • are well supported by the organisation they work in, particularly by their line manager
  • have a line manager who is prepared to challenge them and hand over substantial responsibilities to them

The story of Sonali

We’ll start with our first participant, Sonali. She’s the right kind, one that is truly ready for the programme. Sonali has worked hard to get to where she has and has proven to herself and others that she is capable of developing new skills. She has a strong belief that she will have no problem ‘belonging’ at the next level as she has already tested herself in a few areas thanks to her line manager, Karen handing over some of her own responsibilities. Sonali is highly confident that she is supported by Karen as they have regular catchups where Karen offers feedback and helps Sonali to understand her successes and her areas for improvement. Having made a few mistakes along the way and learnt a lot from them, Sonali recognises that in taking on a bigger role she will be moving into an area of likely incompetence and is prepared to start a new learning curve. She understands that she will have to let some of her old areas of competence go and help other people to step into her old role in their own way. Sonali’s line manager, Karen is keen to move forwards too and they have had conversations with the wider business about how best this can work. Sonali and Karen both feel a sense of urgency and excitement about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

A programme full of Sonalis will challenge and support each other, embrace new concepts, take on new challenges and will get curious about mistakes and the relevant learnings that they can get from them. They won’t wait to be wowed by ‘never seen before’ models or charismatic TED-style speakers but will simply ask what they can do to get the most out of the programme and will constantly look to find ways to make things work. A programme full of Sonalis will take ownership for their mutual development and work hard to embed new concepts, even researching and sharing new concepts outside the formal elements of the programme. They will actively seek out mentors and look to take on new responsibilities outside their comfort zone. Their line managers will coach, guide and support them and create enough space for them to grow into a new role to the point where they start to create some difficult decisions for their leaders… in a good way.

The story of Sandy

Now let’s look at Sandy. Sandy also wants to move his career forwards but differs from Sonali in one or two ways. Having been in role for a number of years and mastered all the technical aspects of his current discipline, Sandy is ready for a change. As he sees himself as one of the high-performers in his field, he feels that he is ready for a ‘leadership’ role. Whilst he hasn’t yet tried anything out, he knows he’ll be good at it and feels he has earned the opportunity. Sandy’s line manager, Greg recognises Sandy’s hard work and technical excellence and feels that a place on a programme for ‘high-potentials’ will be a good reward for Sandy. Greg isn’t comfortable handing any of his own responsibilities over to Sandy yet but thinks that if Sandy feels he is being invested in and can learn some new ‘leadership’ skills, this will contribute towards staff retention and a more robust succession plan. If Sandy doesn’t get on the programme, Greg thinks he will have to work harder to make him feel valued and stay engaged. That would put a lot of time pressure on Greg and expose some of his own leadership skills gaps. The cost of putting Sandy on the programme seems insignificant when compared to the alternative.

So what happens when we introduce a number of people like Sandy into the programme?

Introducing one or two participants like Sandy to our mix creates a shift in the dynamic in subtle but highly significant ways:

  • Sandy asks different questions (but not in a good way) – Whilst Sonali would ask questions to clarify her understanding of a concept and identify how to apply it, Sandy will often ask questions to rebut a concept and identify reasons why not to change. After all, there’s safety in being a high-performer and there’s risk in giving some of that up to try and untap new potential.
  • The Sonalis get held back – Spending time getting those like Sandy to understand and buy in to concepts that the Sonalis are more open-minded about means that the Sonalis get less time to experiment and try out the concepts during facilitated elements of the programme. Some may also get disheartened and fatigued by the constant opening and closing of the same learnings as Sandy wrestles against and looks to close down anything that threatens to disrupt his status quo.
  • Sandy won’t embed skills or deliver success – If Sandy’s line manager isn’t prepared to hand over any of their leadership responsibilities, then how can Sandy develop his readiness to perform a more senior role? It simply doesn’t work. On top of this, Sandy will be put in uncomfortable situations before he is ready and without support. If Sandy fails, he is likely to be unsupported and blame starts to rear its ugly head. This messes with people’s careers and is ethically questionable.

There is a very real danger of having people on the programme who don’t deliver success. When change doesn’t happen, the programme is seen as a failure and is confined to the archives thus leaving a gap for all the future Sonalis who would have benefitted from being a part of it. Those like Sandy also don’t get promoted and believe the business has failed them. They either leave or become disruptively disengaged.

The story of Soren

On we go to Soren. He’s a real specialist and good at what he does. He’s not a leader and hasn’t even heard of any of the development programmes in the company. That said, he has lots of opinions on other people’s leadership styles and is fairly well read. Soren likes a debate. In fact, he engages actively in debates and often has the loudest voice, sometimes to the detriment of others around him. Soren is smart and likes to be right. He also likes to talk round all sides of an argument and will often take an opposing viewpoint, just for fun. And let’s not overlook the fact that Soren is very good at his job. It would be hard to replace him and as Soren’s role is quite niche, Amelia, his line manager would not know how to replace his technical skills if he left other than by recruiting someone new. She has neither the budget or the appetite for searching for new staff in niche technical positions and sees Soren’s retention as key for her own success. Amelia has no intention of handing over her responsibilities to Soren and he has no desire to do what he sees as ‘people pleasing’. After all, being technically excellent and right all the time is what matters… isn’t it?

So would you ever put a Soren on a programme aimed at Sonalis?

Of course not! This would be about as ridiculous as using a banana as a bottle-opener. So why does it still happen when we all know that putting Sorens on this type of programme will:

  • Disrupt everyone else’s learning
  • Give Sandy (and worse still, maybe a Sonali or two) an excuse not to try so hard
  • Deliver marginal results for Soren, if any.

So what?

When we confuse performance with potential and worse still, readiness, we run the risk of sending seriously mixed messages. Our Sonalis simply don’t understand why Sandy is here if they haven’t got the same high-potential? If the message isn’t clear, we create the belief in our organisation that you can get promoted to leadership positions without developing the skills that you will need. Sonali may start to see herself as being like Sandy and begin to question the messages she has received about her own growth potential. She may even recognise that the Sandy way is easier and start to follow that route. Worse still, others in the business begin to mimic Sandy’s behaviours and the organisation creates a ‘leadership vacuum’, which can only be filled in the short term by recruiting leaders from elsewhere.

There are many different types of people out there and we have profiled just three. What is clear from all the evidence we have reviewed, from current and existing projects, is that organisations cannot hope to develop their most high potential talent if they do not have a clear and well-communicated process for getting the right people on the programmes. Businesses that continue to confuse performance and potential and allow so-called ‘leaders’ to use development programmes as recognition or retention tools are missing the point and missing out on real returns on their investment. A place on a high-potential programme should never be a reward for the job someone has done, more a forward payment against the job they are about to do.

A final word…

Be sure to think twice about where you invest your leadership development spend and ask two seemingly simple questions:

  • Are these people ready to own their development?
  • Is this organisation ready to support them?

The better you can answer those two questions, the more you reduce uncertainty and deliver the leadership legacy that your people and your business deserve.


Catseye is a leadership development consultancy on a mission. We work with a strong sense of purpose and believe that we can change the world, one step at a time.

Navigating a course through the ambiguity of readiness isn’t easy. Helping make this easier is why we get out of bed in the morning. We love helping you to break down complexity and create clarity, so you know you’re making the right decisions about readiness for your leadership programmes, every time.

Our models and methodologies are built through formal research and hundreds of projects and experiences. Our people are made of similar things and are kept topped up by a healthy supply of coffee and snacks.


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