Friday, February 13, 2009 Weekly Column: The Development of Leadership

I'm sure that most of us have heard the adage that the undergraduate degree is the new high school diploma. The growth in post secondary education has been tremendous. I personally spent seven years at two institutions earning two degrees.

I think that one of the effects of being in school for a prolonged period of time is that people become accustomed to its normative framework and to the structured progression. It is my experience that new post-secondary recruits are often unsure of themselves when they enter the public service. Naturally, they are drawn to something structured that can fill that comfort and progression void. Think about it: they have yearly evaluations, built-in promotions, and assessments against standardized criteria.

Development programs within the public service embody these characteristics and we often see these programs being dangled as bait to recruit new hires and retain then once they’re in. I know that we've spoken at great length about some of our reservations about development programs in the past. But what follows are some new thoughts that occurred to me at a recent PPX event on retaining young talent having just finished listening to Seth Godin's Tribes. Now if you have read or listened to Tribes you will undoubtedly connect what I am saying to what Seth Godin presents, I am simply applying his framework to the public service and its development programs.

Through Seth’s eyes, the problem with development programs is that they do not necessarily produce leaders and innovators. In effect they reward and perpetuate herd mentality and produce predictable outcomes.

Before you get all up in arms, let me (and Seth) explain.

Leaders and innovators typically lead and innovate despite the status quo, not in support of it. Yet, the best a development program can do is provide employees with the skills that have been determined to be important in the past and in the immediate present. In essence, development programs are cyclical in that they support and reinforce the status quo, creating predictability and producing (process and rule) followers.

Now, it is not my intent to simply bash development programs, but I do want you to think about the implications of development programs vis-à-vis facilitating leadership. At the PPX event I attended it was widely accepted by the participants that both development programs and competitive processes reward a candidate's ability to follow instructions, not necessarily their ability to be daring, to lead, or to innovate. One participant even said that she was very concerned about the prospect of working for a manager who was quickly promoted because they excelled at thinking inside the box.

Speaking now from my own personal experience, my most rewarding experiences in my academic career were the ones that happened outside of class, the sidebar conversations, the late-night debates in the local pub, or engaging the contrarian piece of research purposely left off the course syllabus.

Moreover, the most successful people I know today aren’t necessarily the ones who breezed through the academic and technical requirements of their programs, but the ones who faced (and overcame) adversity along the way. They are the ones who were willing to take a risk, to challenge themselves, to write a paper that flew in the face of the established order. They refused to write or present that which was expected of them simply because it was expected of them. Instead they chose to forge ahead, to try something new, to challenge authority figures on something they said, rather than take it as a given.

This is how innovation in the government works, Seth would say that if it isn’t met with resistance from the institution, then chances are it isn’t innovative. True innovation, upsets the established order and successful creative instigation (or, in our vernacular, scheming virtuously) requires tenacity.

In fact KP commented on this very blog that:

“I know many high potential and exceptional leaders who have never been part of a leadership program; and not all participants in these programs have been I am not sure that we need centrally run development programs...why isn't everyone just developing leaders?”

So, what am I saying?

First, it is my contention that (as KP stated above) employees do not need to be in a development program to lead.

Second, it is also my contention that opportunities to lead are most likely more numerous outside development programs where there are fewer restrictions.

Third, I hypothesize that that leaders and innovators tend to be drawn to where opportunity congregates, in this case outside development programs.

I assume that by now I have offended some of you, at least those of you currently in development programs who consider yourselves to be the leaders and/or innovators of the future, and for that I don't apologize.


Because I truly believe that you should be leading and innovating now, not preparing for the role in future.

Honestly, ask yourself some simple questions.

Does your development program provide you with opportunities to lead and innovate? Does it encourage you to make your own opportunities or does its mandate restrict you to a preordained set of activities through which you must progress? Is it a blank sheet that says fill me up with your most innovative and creative insights, your tenacity, and your willingness to fail, or is it a riskless grocery list chocked full of checkboxes? Does the graduation from the program give you something it doesn’t give anyone else who has also been through it?

It may be comfy and cozy, it may provide you with that tiered progression and a sense of what to expect over the next few years, but given the questions above, does your development program really meet your needs?

Are you busy preparing to be a leader of tomorrow with the competencies of today? Or are you willing to lead today, building the competencies of the future?


  1. Here's my insights from having been in a development program:

    Does your development program provide you with opportunities to lead and innovate?
    I've had 3 assignments with my development program (Management Trainee Program). In the first, I redevelopped the Quality Evaluation program at CRA, using technology to improve performance and user-friendliness. Then, I was able to move to Newfoundland and study their current demographic situation and write a report & action plan to help guide their Public Service Renewal. I also led their National Public Service committee, and organized dozens of innovative activities. Now I'm a Team Leader with Service Canada's OL division, and have redevelopped their process to handle complaints. I'd say at every level, I had plenty of opportunities to lead and innovate.

    Does it encourage you to make your own opportunities or does its mandate restrict you to a preordained set of activities through which you must progress?
    The MTP program had a list of assignments I could have chosen, but I was also free to find my own assignment. There are "preordained" competencies they want you to develop, which are in line with the competencies to progress, and CRA also requires participants to gain regional experience to help balance your perspective on issues, but otherwise, there's no set path of activities.

    Is it a blank sheet that says fill me up with your most innovative and creative insights, your tenacity, and your willingness to fail, or is it a riskless grocery list chocked full of checkboxes?
    Neither. It's a blank sheet that you fill out with your advisor based on what you feel you need to develop. Once in an assignment though, then that's the time to start applying your innovations and insights, with tenacity and risk, to have an impact and leave a legacy after your assignment. We all develop Assignment Agreements as to what we need to accomplish while there, but those are always just the basic requirements, leaving plenty of room for other initiatives.

    Does the graduation from the program give you something it doesn’t give anyone else who has also been through it?
    Yes. It provides participants with a sort of "incubation" with like-minded participants who also want to make a difference and shake things up. The program doesn't create robots in the image of the bureaucratic machine. The Learning component of the program constantly challenges us to break out of any comfort zones. Those who make it through tend to find many other agents of change on which they can lean on when their tenacity is tested. If anything the MTP program helped foster a network of non-conformists, and maybe that's why the program is being terminated in many departments. The 'matrix' is fearing the change.

    That said, I think to assume that all leaders must go through a development program is absurd. The greatest leaders may very well develop outside of a program. What the development program provided however was a helping hand to a handful of candidates that had been identified as potential leaders, and gave them the opportunity to prove themselves. And therein lies a problem with your assumption. We aren't training for the future. We are in positions that challenge us to grow now, so that we'll be ready for even bigger challenges in the future. Some do, some don't. The success rate isn't 100%, but I have seen a fair number of quality leaders graduate from the program with a stronger sense of critical thought mixed with political savvy to be able to have a major impact on the public service as we know it.

    Not all leaders in the public service will go through a development program. But without the development program, we'll have less leaders.

  2. To see my comments so nicely aligned with those of Seth Godin is humbling, but not surprising. Those of us who have been students of the science of leadership have all come to the same conclusion: it isn’t the structure, program, mentor, coach, or assignment that makes the leader, it is the leader who makes the leader. And that leadership manifests itself as presence (or charisma, being, authenticity, and so on). The development program is a means to an end, not the end.

    To ensure development programs are successful, they have to provide a variety of approaches to enable new recruits to grow, accelerate and develop themselves such as coaches, mentors, actively engaged managers, visibility, credit and openness. An accelerated hiring and promotion practice combined with the right support, direction and learning opportunities can successfully grow those who come to the program as leaders/learners. And there are many leaders/learners who never participate in the development programs that also grow as quickly and are successful. But they all have one thing in common, they all most likely had mentors, coaches, stretch assignments or on-the-job learning that became the key to their success.

    Offering a multitude of possibilities to ensure we cast a very broad net to as many of those leaders/learners as we can is a good thing.

    One way or another, leaders will find a way to lead.

  3. Having taken part in a development program, I believe that they are successful at developing employees. However, I would have to agree that they do not necessarily develop leaders. They could, but I don't know if it is because of the program or the person. Some assignments within a program may provide and encourage opportunities to lead. But in the end, it is the individual that has to take advantage of an opportunity and decide what is best for their development both short and long term. For me, I wanted to put myself in a position where I could have more influence, so I left the development program, and the department. I would go back to the department in a heartbeat and the development program gave me the tools to succeed in my current role, but my current role put me in a position to develop more of the leadership competencies. Development programs provide an option for employees that require a structure, while others can develop their skill sets on their own. I don't know if either is more successful then the other but programs appeal to an audience that may not have otherwise had, or found, the right opportunity.

  4. My comments: