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17 January 2023

How are leaders going to develop during a likely recession?

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

What might become a setback for the development of leaders could turn out to be healthy. Scarcity tends to make us reassess and focus.

We don’t need to follow the news to know the economic climate. Mainstream fashion gives it away. Upturns come with a color range from pastel to bright. More skin is visible with shorter skirts and unbuttoning. Downturns reveal themselves with earthy colors and lengthy conservative cuts. The tie might even come back. It retired during the last few rounds of upturns, but it did suddenly get retied as the economy toughened.

Similarly, the economic climate reveals itself in the extent of leadership development initiatives. They flourish during upturns and wither when the ties reappear. Development is like a luxury, for which we have more appetite in prosperous times.

That is paradoxical, as leadership is more challenging when the going gets tough. Everything else being equal, giving attention and support to leaders should be more relevant during a difficult climate. We would expect business to be more rational than fashion consumption.

The logic is that leaders cut back on activities whose impact is difficult to measure. A questionable economic contribution compares poorly to the certain one-to-one impact on the bottom line from not spending.

HR departments and their consultants have become better at collecting data on development successes, but slashing leadership development happens regardless. Closer scrutiny of these numbers does, though, make the cheer for them subside. Leadership is integral to all activities involving humans. Who can convincingly separate the effect of development efforts from all the other factors influencing business performance?

A potentially insightful reframing could be: How do development efforts impact business performance? This would invite more granular answers.

My friend and colleague Zafer Achi made a helpful distinction during the initial chaos of the COVID pandemic. He noted that there are three forms of leadership development, which all bring benefits while trickling down each in their own way:

  • Development as an indulgence manifests in inspirational corporate events, recreational team-building retreats, and the like. The louder the distraction, the softer is the linkage to day-to-day business.
  • Development as an investment happens, for example, through talent programs and specialized university courses. The expected future needs of the business motivate where and how the money should be spent.
  • Development in actionmakes a difference right now, right in the action.” It addresses what matters most immediately. Development enhances a leader’s current effectiveness; their leadership challenges enable this development.

A likely recession invites business leaders to consider how they should allocate their own time and the company’s resources across the three approaches.

My belief is that even sophisticated companies have an untapped potential for utilizing development-in-action more extensively. Development as either indulgence or investment grabs attention with its potential for bravado.

Development-in-action stands out in two regards. First, it is more incremental, less aspirational. The movement from point A to point B looks completely different when you start by looking at point B instead of point A. Having plenty of time and resources gives space for considering best practices—both those of others and your own potential future ones. These serve as possible point B’s. In contrast, scarcity forces leaders to deal with what is right in front of them. Development-in-action starts exactly where a leader or group of leaders are right now. It explores point A through, for example, stakeholder interviews or observing leadership meetings.

Moving forward one step at a time enables shorter learning loops and gives greater flexibility to adjusting along the way.

Second, development-in-action is more specific, less generic. There are fashions within management. New concepts gain popularity. Others fade. Soulful concepts blossom in good times. More mechanical ones thrive during the bad. Yet, the same conceptual solution will not match the needs of every business at any given time. Challenges and opportunities are interdependent and evolve together. There is a real choice in whether to address them one way or another or from various angles simultaneously. Development-in-action consists of tailor-made interventions and occasionally, a fair bit of improvisation.

I guess that we all experience that when trying to help a friend who would really benefit from help. We must carefully contemplate the specific circumstances to be of any good. Irrespective, we often leave much wiser than when we showed up.

The post refers to Zafer Achi’s distinction of the three development approaches; for more background see: https://www.cultivatingleadership.com/leadership/2020/03/never-has-there-been-a-better-time-for-development-in-action

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