Avoiding 3 Common Leadership Development Mistakes

Leadership development is important. It’s also not always done well. Among the common mistakes I’ve seen:

  • Some people seem to believe that you can just grab leadership competencies from anywhere and just plug them into your organization.
  • Many companies outsource their leadership development—even though this is really about teaching people your culture and how to think and behave—so at best it’s generic; at worst, it’s just wrong.
  • Most of the time, leadership courses are taught outside of the ebb and flow of work—as single events—and no matter how good they may be, the likely impact on behavior is very small.

Several months ago, I really enjoyed reading the McKinsey paper written by Peter Allen, Vice President, Human Resources and Organization Development, at Agoda.com, Toward a new HR philosophy.

I reached out to Peter to fill me in on his take on my observations:

Leadership development, it’s an evergreen topic. Every senior manager I've ever met feels that his or her team could use more leadership skills. But getting there is trickier than it seems. As you’re working to develop your people, here are a few things you should be thinking about.

1. The skills you teach have to be right for your organization.

This seems obvious, but in fact many companies get it wrong. I've seen articles that recommend that you just choose a list of leadership qualities from anywhere—off the Internet or from some generic list of competencies assembled by consulting firms, from surveys, etc.

Wrong! Leadership is contextual. For example, leading in an Internet startup is totally different from leading in a financial services provider. Consider: Trying experiments and making mistakes is crucial in a tech company. In a bank, not so much.


To build better leaders at your company, you really have to understand what makes the organization and culture work and focus on those.


Similarly, leading in Thailand is very different from leading in Sweden. Leading in Thailand is very different from leading in Singapore! To build better leaders at your company, your nonprofit, your educational institution, you really have to understand what makes the organization and culture work and focus on those.

For example, at Agoda.com, we really value our collaborative, collegial environment, so we've made emotional intelligence one of our core leadership characteristics. We interview for this quality, we test for it, and we teach it by helping our leaders and managers understand themselves and others, have difficult conversations, managing up, et cetera.

2. Don't delegate leadership development.

This principle is closely related. If you simply outsource leadership development, whether to a Top 10 business school or to a local boutique consultancy, you’ll end up with their ideas of leadership in your people’s heads and hearts—not your own.

I strongly believe in building leadership programs inside the company. This doesn't mean you can’t get help—for example, we develop people management skills with the help of an online business school program—but even there, we add workshops my department designs and our managers teach to make sure that everyone brings the textbook answers to life with examples and practices from our world.


Make sure that everyone brings the textbook answers to life with examples and practices from our world.


If you do end up getting help from an outside provider, the company's leaders must be involved. They should help design the curriculum; they should help teach; and, most important of all, they have to live the values that are being taught. Without this, there’s a significant risk that the values won’t hold true, and that there will be a big gap between what people say and what they do— a leadership disaster.

At Agoda, we also believe that CEOs and senior management should not delegate leadership development to the HR department. Our philosophy, as I’ve explained in the McKinsey Quarterly article, is that the People function should be a consultative partner, not a substitute for good management by managers. This applies just as much to teaching and developing leaders as it does to managing employees.

3. Leadership development is not a vaccination; it’s a lifestyle change.

Vaccines have changed the world, eradicating diseases like polio and smallpox. But human behavior doesn’t change with a single one-shot experience.

Instead, we have to live the change. Developmental practices like yoga, mindfulness and meditation require daily repetition to develop skill and obtain benefits. Many religions expect their adherents to worship weekly, pray daily and practice constantly to develop their spirituality and live a virtuous life. Keeping the body healthy, losing weight, giving up addictions—all of these make a difference, but they also require daily practice.


Live the change.


The same for leadership development. Leadership is about how you think and feel, how you speak and act. It’s completely unrealistic to believe that any single leadership program—whether it lasts one day, one week or longer—can have a permanent influence on people. It has to be repeated, and it has to be lived.

Think about this principle as you build your leadership programs. How can you turn them from an event into a process? What preparation are you going to require from people in advance? How can you make the program into something that will be followed up? At the end of many of our programs, we ask people to make commitments and then follow up.

What reminders can you send? What are the next steps? And, once again, how are you practicing and setting an example for what you teach? The more of these things you do and the more consistently you do them, the greater the chances you’ll see the kind of behavior changes you are hoping for.