The APQC Blog

The "Secrets" of Leadership Development

APQC recently spoke with Dan McCarthy, the Director of Executive Development Programs at the Paul College of Business and Economics, at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). He’s the author of the award winning leadership development blog “Great Leadership” and the Great Leadership Development and Succession Planning eBook. You can find him on Twitter at @greatleadership.

Learn more about leadership development from APQC’s Leadership Deficit Research Report.


APQC’s Leadership Deficit survey research found that leadership development programs today are considered by many to be ineffective. What do you think are some of the most common leadership development mistakes that organizations make? How could these be fixed so that leadership development programs will be more effective?

The “secrets” of leadership development are no longer secrets. The ones that consistently do it well year over year—the GEs, P&Gs, 3Ms, IBMs, etc… treat it as a strategic priority, are committed to it, and are willing to invest in it (time and money). Yes, innovation and execution are important to—but it all starts with top-level commitment. If you only have half-baked (or half-assed, if I can say that) commitment (lip service), you’re going to get half-baked results (and poor survey results). Once the CEO is on board, the rest is relatively easy. In fact, it’s kind of hard to screw it up. Study the research on what works and what doesn’t, learn from the best, and adapt those tried and true best practices to your organization’s unique needs and culture.

One of the top drivers of the leadership skills deficit, according to our research, is that a different style of leadership is required and that current leaders are resistant to changing how they lead. Based on your experience with executive development, what are some steps that organizations could take to provide ongoing development to current executives?

Successful executives are often, if not always hesitant to change their behaviors. After all, why should they? They often connect those same behaviors to their success (cause and effect). Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are successful in spite of some ineffective behaviors, and sometimes new challenges require a different set of skills and behaviors.

I’ve found the best way to help executives see the need to change how they lead (without changing who they are) is to use 360 assessments, feedback, and coaching. It’s like holding a mirror up to them and saying “see, this is how you’re coming across to others and the impact it’s having on them.” Actually, you don’t have to say anything—the data speaks for itself. Then it’s a matter of helping them identify new behaviors to replace the ineffective ones, and helping them practice until they start to see improved results.

You wrote a very useful blog post titled How to Be a Leader in a Crappy Culture. What would you say are the elements that make up an organizational culture that encourages great leadership?

Thanks, I got a lot of nice emails as a result of that post (How to Be a Leader in a Crappy Culture).

Cultural elements that encourage great leadership would be a strong set of articulated leadership values, role modeling from all levels, openness to feedback and learning, and organizational structures that support leadership development.

Our survey found that one of the drivers behind the leadership deficit is that at many organizations’ selection, development, and reward practices are encouraging an outdated style of leadership. You wrote a blog post titled How “Strategically Aligned” is your Leadership Development Program? How can HR make sure that HR practices are aligned with the type of leadership that the organization requires?

Hmmm, that’s the second time you’ve used the term “outdated style of leadership.” I’m not sure great leadership—specifically the competencies that make up great leadership—ever really go out of style. Given that, every organization needs to put a different emphasis on critical competencies that are needed to achieve their business objectives.  It’s a “connect the dots” exercise: Business strategy X requires leadership competencies A, B, C, and D. So, all of our HR practices (success profiles, selection criteria, rewards, development programs, 360 assessments, etc…) need to be aligned to build these critical leadership competencies.  

In practice, it’s not that easy. Picking that handful of critical competencies is hard… and often gets muddied up with politics and bureaucracy, and the temptation to take shortcuts.

CEOs are often cited as being very concerned about a leadership shortage, yet our survey found that leadership development is underfunded at many organizations. You have written a lot about the role that CEO’s play in great leadership. Why do you think that there is a disconnect between what CEOs say is a priority and where investments are being made? What could an organization do to fix this disconnect?

CEOs say a lot of things are a top priority. You are the right—the proof of what is really seen as important is what’s funded, where the CEO spends time, and what’s discussed at the monthly operating reviews. I wish I had a prescription for that one—i.e., how to get your CEO to make it a priority. Some have had success taking a business case approach, some have turned the tide doing pilots and getting measurable results. Sometimes CEOs are exposed to something (peers, an event) that makes them come back with religion, and sometimes, if it’s not too late, the pain (poor results, lack of successors, inability to fill critical positions, etc…) becomes so intolerable that they are compelled to finally get serious and take action.

APQC’s survey found that developing leadership skills in all employees is associated with an organization having a smaller leadership skills gap and that organizations using a more inclusive, less hierarchical style of leadership also have smaller skills gaps. Given these findings, do you think there is still a role for high potential development programs? Why or why not?

Absolutely! High potential programs are just one type of leadership development—and should never be at the expense of everyone else. Everyone needs some kind of development—it will only make the organization stronger, so I’m not surprised by those survey results. However, some employees have more potential to assume larger roles than others, so the type of development they get is different—designed to get them ready for those larger roles.