Aditi Sharma Kalra looks at the different considerations employers have in selecting a leadership development programme, the path undertaken for this careful, yet rewarding journey, and their experiences working with external partners.

Investing in a leadership development or succession planning programme takes time, money and effort, and in some cases, a complete overhaul of an organisation’s people processes. In return, HR decision makers are looking for now-ready and future leaders to navigate the business into newer markets, products and geographies – all while grooming a pipeline of leaders.

However, data suggests the reality is often harder than anticipated.

According to a 2016 report by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, 55% of Asia Pacific respondents judged the return on their leadership development spending investment as only “fair”, “poor” or “very poor”. Clearly, we need to identify the reasons for this gap between company expectations and the reality.

In this feature, we have a look at the different considerations employers have in selecting a leadership development programme; the path undertaken for this careful, yet rewarding journey; and their experiences working with external partners.

Zooming into the leadership pipeline

It is always intriguing to go behind the scenes to understand the workings of a leadership programme, and in this case, we visit Leica Microsystems, the German company specialising in microscopes and microscopy imaging equipment. Esther Chong is the senior regional HR director for Asia Pacific, wherein she leads country HR teams to drive the people strategy for the plants and commercial selling units, and partners with business leaders on plans to support the business agenda.

“Leadership, for us, has two main thrusts – strengthening the leadership pipeline and enhancing leadership effectiveness,” she says.

The first, strengthening the pipeline, is typically done by building technical and people management competencies. A whole suite of programmes called Danaher Business System (DBS), in a reference to the parent company, is available in areas such as kaizen, problem solving, value-selling and more. Among the people-related programmes are leadership essentials, performance and development for growth, and situational leadership. These are run regularly for all Danaher companies.

In addition, DBS camps were intensified for Leica Microsystems APAC in 2017, enhancing competencies for those in need and placing a few enabled employees as trainers.

The initial training is conducted by a global vendor appointed by Danaher, after which it is handed over to internal trainers. These internal trainers are usually project leads and are able to coach their fellow colleagues. Being a trainer herself, Esther explains: “This idea stems from the philosophy and principle that you learn more when you teach.”

Some of it may be common sense, but having said that, a lot of our people managers have many aha moments when they attend this course, as it sharpens their situational assessment mindset. 
- Esther Chong, senior regional HR director APAC, Leica Microsystems on the Situational Leadership® model
In the gestation stage is a regional manager development framework, using the various DBS tools. This will go in line with various technical tracks that managers require. “We want to ensure that our people are developed into capable people leaders who are technically competent and yet command followership with good influencing skills. They will then be able tick off all these modules before they can be more independent and network with regional colleagues.”

This framework is in the future pipeline and is expected to be rolled out in the next few months.

The second thrust of leadership is enhancing leadership effectiveness, done through two key programmes. The first is leadership essentials, which touches on aspects such as handling conflict, performance management, coaching and more – typically for new people managers.

The second one is a step-up, that is, the Situational Leadership® model driven from Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey, for which Esther is the master trainer. “I find it is very flexible and effective. Some of it may be common sense, but having said that, a lot of our people managers have many aha moments when they attend this course, as it sharpens their situational assessment mindset.”

This year, the team is rolling out facilitation forums post the Situational Leadership training. Essentially, the idea is to get people to huddle in small groups after attending the course, where they can exchange insights on how to handle real work situations.

The only challenge Esther and her team have navigated in the midst of all this action is to get endorsement from top management – especially, getting it to ensure staff will not back out from the course. Management, however, has been fully supportive after HR socialised the initiative’s objectives and got its buy-in. As an added measure, the team has included this training to staff’s performance development objectives for the year.

She goes on to speak about the impact of these initiatives: “From our yearly employee engagement survey, the engagement index has gone up year on year, and we are above 70% which is the IBM best-practice benchmark.”

Furthermore, she says that people are more confident in using these tools to undertake continuous improvement in their business areas, which is evident in the way they are now able to solve business problems.

An ear to the ground on blended learning

Singapore-headquartered Sivantos is a leading manufacturer of hearing aids, and apart from helping consumers hear better, it also listens to the needs of its own staff. Global head of leadership and organisational development, Gary Lee, recently piloted a blended learning programme with Harvard ManageMentor as part of leadership development for 2018.

“In 2017, we had two sessions of face-to-face training with another provider. Unfortunately, due to the lack of follow-up and action steps, the effects were short lived,” he reveals.

With that context, and external and internal changes to the organisation, there was a pressing need to ramp up capabilities in the areas of leadership competencies, and the number of leaders benefiting.

For most employees, people development is usually associated with stand-up delivery training. So in this case, Sivantos’ initiative required an understanding of what leaders believe about learning online and taking into the consideration the resource constraint of continuous learning ,while balancing the business needs of the initiative. Further, being globally dispersed can be very challenging to gather all the leaders for face-to-face training.

“We conducted multiple virtual sessions in-house to introduce the concept of blended learning and emphasise its benefits over traditional stand-up delivery,” Lee explains.

The partners I have worked with so far have weekly check-ins with my organisation to ensure tasks are on track and support us in corrective action if necessary.
- Sivantos' global head of leadership and organisational development, Gary Lee
Also, the provider was engaged to conduct virtual workshops to get participants excited about being part of the pilot and provide a way to pose questions to a subject matter expert.

The participating leaders were selected based on inputs from global HR business partners, which were then endorsed by top management – thus, sending out the message that this leadership initiative was top priority.

Sivantos adopted a blended approach in balancing business value and cost effectiveness. In fact, the team is in the midst of moving its development needs from outsourced to in-house capabilities to stretch the training dollar. “Using a blended approach enables us to scale what is necessary for leadership development with greater flexibility than completely outsourcing.”

The results of this programme were measured in not only utilisation rates, but also based on the learning impact by the participants as well as the number of leaders not in the programme who benefited from the participants cascading what they had learnt. “We structured café-sharing materials where participants can share relevant knowledge in 45-minute blocks to their team or peers. We also measure the number of on-the-job applications of what the participants have learnt based on inputs from our provider.”

Further, we asked Lee the major things HR leaders could look out for in the selection of a vendor. Foremost is the level of support they provide to ensure a successful implementation of the proposed solution. Are the partners willing to go the extra mile to partner with HR to ensure the business buys into the solution?

“For example, the partners I have worked with so far have weekly check-ins with my organisation to ensure tasks are on track and support us in corrective action if necessary.”

Second is the level of dependence of the organisation for the vendor to sustain the benefits. “If the organisation has to keep going back to the vendor to keep the initiative going, this approach will not be sustainable in the mid to long-term,” he says, adding: “Good partners enable the organisation to help themselves rather than perpetually providing Band-Aids.”

Third, instead of price alone, HR leaders need to look into the business value the initiative brings. “For example, working with Harvard ManageMentor created a perceived value for some of the business leaders due to its affiliation with Harvard Business School.”

He also credits this partner for adopting a collaborative approach to customise the content suitable for its leaders.

HR priorities right on the money

The banking sector is the lifeline of the knowledge economy and making wise investments is the number one priority. This philosophy is no different when it comes to employees working at The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC, and a HCPartner under the Human Capital Partnership (HCP) Programme - a tripartite initiative managed by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) and supported by the Ministry of Manpower, the tripartite partners, and various economic and sector agencies.

The organisation rolled out a new Leaders as Teachers programme late last year, aiming to transform the way people lead and learn at HSBC, and for this interview, we caught up with Priscilla Teo, SVP and head of learning and talent development, Singapore hub, HSBC.

“It aims to develop more effective business leaders who play a key role in developing the next generation of executives and promoting a culture of continuous learning and development,” she says.

As such, the programme focuses on the core aspects required for effective facilitation and delivery of leader-led training programmes; skills acquired here can be applied in day-to-day leadership situations.

Putting it in an implementation perspective, she says: “Leaders take on the role of recognising the developmental needs of their team members and help them to cultivate new skills in order to further their professional development and personal growth.”

The learning opportunities for leaders come through teaching, where they can sharpen their skills; and through engaging with their employees face-to-face on a regular basis in a learning environment, which naturally leads to learning new skills.

Additionally, learning is made more impactful when the teaching comes from the personal stories and real-life experiences of leaders. Teo credits this approach to building trust between leaders and their team members, and boosting business results when implemented regularly and effectively.

Leaders are accountable not only for delivering the expected business outcomes, but also for discovering and developing the professional skills of their team.
-  Priscilla Teo, SVP and head of learning and talent development, Singapore hub, HSBC
Since its execution, the biggest change involved is the introduction of the notion of leader accountability and the mindset change that needs to come with it. Leaders are accountable not only for delivering the expected business outcomes, but also for discovering and developing the professional skills of their team.

“By providing leaders with the right tools, we begin to see and hear of more productive conversations between these leaders and their teams. This helps build better relationships and deliver greater results in the workplace.”

In fact, HSBC has built up a leaders alumni faculty of senior leaders, who the company now leverages on to co-deliver its suite of HSBC University programmes and offerings.

In learning from HSBC’s experience, it is important to consider the barriers that were overcome. “The biggest challenge was to identify a group of credible participants for our pilot run, who were passionate about leader-led training and were willing to role-model it.”

This was overcome through a strong partnership with the business leaders who either volunteered themselves or nominated team members who would be good leader-teacher role models. As a result of this collaboration, the pilot run was a huge success and the success stories attracted others to sign up for subsequent runs.

Not only in terms of participation, HSBC has since seen an increased level of leader accountability and engagement in developing the next generation of executives, “like we have never seen before”, in Teo’s words.

“As leaders begin to share their personal stories and real-life experiences, they create impactful learning experiences for the learners, improve the overall learning effectiveness, and start to build trust with their team members.”

On the final point of in-house versus outsourced, she is a supporter of the blended approach. “It allows us to leverage great external expertise and best practice as well as the knowledge of its internal subject matter experts who can share real-life examples and case studies with participants to enhance the overall learning effectiveness.”

In choosing a solution provider, this HR leader reveals her wish list for innovations from vendors. “Use of more computer simulations to provide real-life cases for active learning as well as more online discussion groups to facilitate peer learning and support.”

Photo / StockUnlimited