Skip directly to content

Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
August 31, 2015

In response to an argument McKinsey made for why leadership development programs fail, we made two cases for how they succeed: when they set and communicate realistic expectations [Part 1], and when they are built on solid, empirical research foundations [Part 2]. Going beyond the debate on why programs succeed or fail, I’d like to share some bold ways to implement effective leadership development programs.

We have worked with and observed organizations that are creating real, far-reaching changes in how leadership development participants apply what they have learned on the job. They are fundamentally reshaping the environment in which their learners work and, therefore, redefining the 70 in the 70:20:10 model .

Leadership development professionals clearly know the barriers that block true application of new skills and ideas back on the job. Lack of manager/senior leader support, cultural norms, resistant colleagues, and overwhelming job demands all get in the way of lasting behavior change.  Many of these revolve around the job context in which participants are expected to try new things.  And aside from application projects defined for participants as a part of a program, it seems that little can be done to fundamentally reshape the entire environment in which participants are trying to apply new tools and lessons.

However, we have seen companies reshape this environment.  Three elements to achieving it are critical.

 business 287

1. Capitalizing On Immediate, Energizing Opportunities To Contribute

Imagine if, within a couple of days after participating in a leadership program, a middle manager is approached by a colleague and invited to be a part of a new project. The project taps into aspects of the business she is most excited about, has the direct support of a top executive, and enables her to make strong contributions with minimal demands on her time.

One large U.S. professional association engulfed its leadership development program participants in these kinds of opportunities. It deployed proactive invitations to help, multiple peer-driven projects for participants to choose from, and a drum-beat of communication that continuously fueled action. The consistent “pull” of energized colleagues, cross-organizational focus of the work, and executive exposure all directly evoked specific skills that participants just learned.

Kotter International
July 9, 2015

McKinsey made an argument for why leadership development programs fail. At Kotter International, we recognize the difficulty in successfully implementing these programs, but we also believe they can be a key component to helping you and your organization thrive in an increasingly complex world. Part 1 of this series highlighted the importance of setting and communicating realistic expectations around leadership development programs. Part 2 of this series explores the critical role of solid, empirical research as the basis for the development of these programs.

Speed and complexity are constantly increasing in today’s world. Organizations can no longer rely solely on the top tier of the hierarchy to navigate this changing environment – they must rely on leaders at all levels. But, in order to do this, they need to broaden their definition of leadership and make an effort to develop more of their leaders, especially at the often over-looked middle level.

And the hard part: they must develop their leaders holistically. Proactive leadership development requires organizations to embrace the 70:20:10 model: 70% dedicated to on-the-job learning, 20% to social learning through coaching or mentoring and 10% to formal skill development programs. However, few organizations execute any of these components well, let alone all three. While there are a number of documented reasons for ineffective deployment of the model, there is one characteristic that all successful leadership development programs share: a strong research foundation underpinning the 70, 20 and 10.

Too often, we see organizations recognize the need to develop leaders throughout the organization, decide on strategic imperatives and HR initiatives to address these needs, and then try to collate research from various thought-leaders to back up their strategies. In these cases, research is often an after-thought for programs developed in-house. On the flip side, many external firms build programs based on a mash-up of findings from multiple thought-leaders. Although well-intentioned, these approaches lead to confusion, lack of engagement, and, many times, an attempt to adhere to competing ideas.

At Kotter International, we argue that sound, empirical research is the necessary foundation for successfully developing leaders. Empirical research is not abstract theory or learning garnered from experiments in a lab. Empirical research is focused on the thoughts and actions of people doing real work in the real world. This is the solid foundation for successful leadership development.


Photo Credit:

It allows you to leverage proven success.

Because empirical research is focused on real work in the real world, it provides you with an understanding of how successful (and unsuccessful) organizations have approached leadership development. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While there is certainly room for innovation in terms of how you can apply this research to leadership development programs within your organization, we absolutely should seek to learn – and benefit – from others.

It provides participants with clarity and confidence.

Having a clear approach to leadership development from the outset provides clarity for those working to implement and those participating in these programs. There is inherently more trust in the process when this approach is founded on empirical research. Clarity is further increased when organizations base their approach to leadership development on a single, coherent model built from this research. Combining models from a variety of thought-leaders leads to confusion, particularly when there are contradictions within these models. Having a clear foundation and clear direction will limit potential frustrations, increasing engagement and the likelihood that participants will continually apply what is learned back on the job.

It equips participants with a shared language.

People within the organization will begin to develop – and use – a shared language when leadership development programs are created using a cohesive approach, based on empirical research. This allows for continued reinforcement of ideas, spanning the classroom (the 10%), relationships with a mentor or coach (the 20%) and on the job (the 70%).

Too often, organizations build the components of the 70:20:10 on different research and models, but the most effective approaches to leadership development intentionally ground all three aspects on the same model. Successful integration of these three aspects occurs when organizations base their approach to leadership development on empirical research, and when this research is threaded throughout on-the-job learning, mentoring and coaching, and formal classroom experiences.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the series, which will look at the power of fundamentally reshaping the organizational context in which companies implement their leadership development efforts. 

Also on Forbes:



Kotter International
June 4, 2015

McKinsey recently made a case for why leadership programs often fail. Unfortunately, too many organizations would corroborate this case. Yet legions of leadership development professionals are still grinding out solutions and those very organizations are still spending what amounts to billions on them. Both providers and buyers are locked in a costly cycle of ineffectiveness and dissatisfaction. Of course, the effective and satisfied are out there. There are just too few of them. How do we address this? We need to reframe and revalue – not devalue – leadership development programs in order to tap their intrinsic value.

Many reasons for leadership program failure are widely recognized. Reasons for success, by comparison, are not. Quality of content is seldom a reason for failure or success, so we don’t need a call to action to improve it. (Moreover, well-designed programs based on solid intellectual property are abundant.)

At Kotter International’s Center for Leaders, we believe that what surrounds and binds content requires much more strategic and tactical attention than it typically receives. To begin to reframe how we think about leadership development programs is to start well before any solution is designed or delivered. Critical success factors languish in areas that leadership development professionals tend to bypass because they seem unimportant or abandon them because they are difficult to achieve. First among them is assumption setting.

Too often, leadership development programs start behind the eight ball of poor internal marketing and communications. A study of hundreds of surveys given to leadership development program participants that asks the question “Were you informed of the program’s description and objectives prior to attending” shows that the vast majority responded “No.” The individuals or functions responsible for leadership development routinely neglect to communicate the facts and realities of their offerings – besides content and competencies – that contribute significantly to their value.

We have observed that there are polarized tendencies within functions that provide programs. Some inflate their programs’ effectiveness to offset a prevailing belief that they are ineffective. Others assume a defensive or apologetic posture based in a covert concern that their offerings just might be ineffective. In short, they set the wrong assumptions or don’t set any at all. The result? Participants that expect too much or too little.


Photo Credit:

We strongly recommend setting the right – that is, the realistic – expectations based on accurate assumptions. We believe it is essential to:

Be honest about limitations. Clarify what each leadership development solution can and cannot provide a participant, a team, a function. There is a vast difference between what a learner gains from spending two hours listening to a guru and a 2-day business simulation. Between straight knowledge transfer and skill development. Don’t assume your potential participants will readily internalize and accept the limitations. It’s the role of the programs’ stewards to name them.