The Last Mile …the biggest challenge in leadership development by Gregg Thompson

We have all been there; the workshop was spectacular, the personal learning was deep and profound, the connections with others were life-long, the in-class exercises were amazingly insightful, your leadership development plans were ambitious and sincere. Then, after a few days back on the job, the personal disappointment sets in. It’s not just that the frenetic demands of the real world have distracted you from your commitments. It’s the people. Your team members are not nearly as open to personal change as your classmates and are performing exactly as they always have despite your greatly enhanced sensitivity and nifty new interpersonal skills. Also, unlike your classmates, your colleagues are less than enthusiastic about your generous offerings of in-the-moment, constructive feedback. And, probably worst of all, your boss is not at all like your workshop facilitator. He just doesn’t get you. The new you! He doesn’t see your inner warrior, understand that you now work from a higher calling or even recognize your newly-discovered, extraordinary leadership potential. The organization has not changed. The people have not changed. And, sadly, you have not changed. You have not gone the last mile.

The last mile is a term that originated in the telecommunication industry to describe the technologies and processes used to connect to the end customer. The last mile became known as the last mile problem when creating the link between the telecommunication networks and the end consumer proved to be extraordinarily difficult and expensive. While largely solved today, it is fascinating to look back at the experiences of companies who built massive global networks but became huge business failures because they were simply unable to complete the last mile. What a great analogy for leadership development. Think about all of the resources being poured into speeches, workshops, books, online learning, etc. How much of this investment results in actual leadership behavioral change? This is a question that haunts many of us in the leadership development field. Maybe we don’t want to know the answer.

I am a leadership coach and, as such, my prime professional interest is in helping leaders make real, sustained change in their day-to-day behavior. Such change is difficult for any of us, but particularly difficult for leaders who are already somewhat successful. I am keenly interested in new leadership competency models, innovative instructional designs and the latest research in adult education, however, these elements serve only to guide and structure a leader’s learning but do little to advance the actual application of that learning. Disappointingly, I believe most leadership learning today falls short of the last mile.

So are all leadership development programs destined to become wasteful uses of valuable corporate resources? Absolutely not! At Bluepoint, we are honored to work with many companies around the world who have found the secret sauce…and it is not that complicated. They follow-up on the learning event in some way. And it doesn’t really seem to matter whether they do a sophisticated ROI measurement or challenge their leaders to check in with their constituents. Follow up of nearly any kind produces amazing results. My good friend and collaborator, Marshall Goldsmith, surveyed over 80,000 workshop participants1 and discovered an overwhelming correlation between follow-up and actual improvement in leadership effectiveness.

So what is leadership development follow-up? Think of it this way: anything that is done post-workshop that stimulates and encourages the behavior change that a leader has committed to in a workshop or similar learning event. The actual follow-up can be done by both leadership development practitioners and leaders themselves.

For Leadership Development Practitioners:

1. Measure something…anything. Well, almost anything. One hundred years of research has taken much of the mystery out of leadership. We know that great leaders create important organization outcomes such as alignment, engagement, commitment, innovation, productivity and the like. Difficult to measure–absolutely, especially if you are after a high degree of precision. But that is not necessary. Simple opinion surveys and self-assessments can have a huge impact. Why? Because the very act of measurement puts a spotlight on these outcomes. My first supervisor, a crusty, old industrial engineer, told me on my first day of work: “Always remember, son: what gets inspected, gets done.” His words are as true today as they were then.

2. Provide Post-Workshop Application Coaching. Of any HRD initiative, this likely provides the best bang-for-your-buck. Bluepoint workshop graduates have the option of engaging in three, post-workshop coaching sessions with a highly-skilled leadership coach. The theme of the first session is: What did you learn and what are you planning to do differently? The second session usually explores: What’s working and what’s not? What adjustments and recommitments need to be made? And in the third session, workshop graduates are challenged with the question: What do you need to do to make great leadership a habit? It is usually impractical to provide long-term, personal coaching to every workshop graduate, however, we have discovered that providing as few as three coaching sessions dramatically increases the amount of learning that is actually applied in a leader’s day-to-day work.

3. Establish Learning Trios. Popularly known as Learning Trios, they really should be called Accountability Trios. There is something particularly compelling about having regular conversations in which you share your plans and intentions with a couple of people who have their own unique leadership aspirations. It’s not so much the advice or mentoring one receives; it’s the open declaration and sense of answerability that really make these trios so effective.

For Leaders:

1. Ask Others One Question. This is not rocket science but it sure is difficult. Ask your constituents (team members, colleagues, your boss, even your customers, and if you are really brave, your family!) this one simple question: “What do I need to do to become a better leader?” Listen, really listen to the answers. Thank everyone for their feedback (yes, some of it will be less-than-helpful). Promise to cycle back after some period of time. Keep your promise. Painful but extremely effective.

2. Ask Yourself Seven Questions! This one looks relatively easy, is very, very effective but is extraordinarily hard to sustain. (I learned this process from Marshall Goldsmith.) Create a set of seven personal, pointed questions about your leadership that you will ask and answer at the end of each day. The questions need to be answerable with a yes, no or a number. That’s it. Put these questions on a spread sheet and record your answers daily. You create the questions; you provide the answers. Easy? I would encourage you to try this process for a couple of weeks. While you need to create the questions that are most meaningful for you and your development, you might consider questions like: “Did I communicate our organization’s story in an inspiring way?” “How many times did I tell others that I appreciated their work?” “Did I coach someone?” “Did I have a difficult, important conversation?” “Did I invest in my development as a leader?”

3. Get a Leadership Coach. And this does not have to be an external coach. Find someone, hopefully within your organization, who is willing to invest some time in you, doesn’t feel the need to fix you or give you a bunch of advice, and cares enough about you to tell you things others will not. There is something quite wonderful about the coaching process. Having someone who really listens to you, helps you explore your most prized aspirations and holds you accountable for your own promises is indeed special.

While follow-up can take many forms, it is always directed at one target: post-learning action that inspires, supports and insists upon leadership behavioral change.

It has become clear to me that we need to spend a lot less time and effort trying to zero in on the precise competencies, practices and models needed by our leaders and direct our energy to helping leaders apply what they already know…helping them complete the last mile!

1 Leadership is a Contact Sport, strategy + business, Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan

Gregg Thompson is President at Bluepoint Leadership Development and author of several books, including “Unleashed: Leader as Coach”. He welcomes your comments by e-mail.

For More Information
Call: (513) 683.4702
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Gregg’s Phone: (513) 289.0141
E-mail: greggthompson(at)bluepointleadership(dot)com

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