MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

So many bad bosses, so few good leaders?

Search for the term "bad bosses" online and you might be shocked at the results. One survey reveals two in ten people say a manager has hurt their career; another states one in five workers have a bad boss; a third, as covered by Forbes studied the impact of bad bosses and found that a shocking "77% of employees experienced physical symptoms of stress from bad bosses."

Why do so many companies lack the team of leaders they envision, despite the time and resources they invest in leadership development programs? MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Douglas Ready and Jay A. Conger, Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, have studied leadership efforts at more than a dozen international companies over the last two decades, trying to answer that very question.

In the MIT Sloan Management Review article, "Why Leadership Development Efforts Fail," Ready and Conger reveal that most of these efforts are to no avail because of clear patterns of behavior that cause repeated failures and breakdowns over time. They also share how IBM—one of the companies they worked with—cured these behaviors to create a leadership program that achieves results.

How IBM overcame leadership development failures

In every regime, there is a conflict between the old, established ways of doing things, and the changing environment that makes some systems obsolete. Says Ready, "Leadership development suffers when executives approach it with control, ownership, and power-oriented mindsets rather than a need for shared accountability."

IBM reversed their leadership development failures by sharing ownership and accountability. For example, IBM created a process to identify and discuss employees with leadership potential at the company's top quarterly meetings—thus aligning leadership development with an already established process to define and discuss strategic goals. Then-CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano, chaired "five minute leadership drills," where each senior executive was expected to share the name of at least one person in his or her unit that display leadership potential. Every manager knows they are accountable to deliver these names.

Process not products

When leadership development efforts are not in alignment with an organization's strategic goals, it results in a search for quick fixes. Quick fixes usually come in the form of weaving leadership development around commercial products that are not directly related to their actual needs. The focus becomes the product, and not the problems that need solving.

IBM switched their leadership focus away from products, and instead invested in processes. IBM's Leadership Framework created a custom process for leadership development that fits IBM, not a one-size-fits-all fix. They heavily researched what IBM needed to succeed and came up with a set of 11 key skills and behaviors demonstrated by exceptional leaders at IBM. These skills and behaviors were touchstones to help managers determine whether a potential leadership candidate is on the right track. At the same time, IBM created a process for on-the-job development that included training potential leaders in demanding situations such as managing turnarounds, managing cultural diversity, and executing cross-border partnerships.

Measuring results, not activity

In the age of big data, there is a metric to measure every business process. But many leadership development efforts fail because companies choose to use the wrong metrics to measure success. Says Ready, "The philosophy that initiatives that cannot be measured have no value, does not apply when it comes to leadership development." The solution is found in learning to ask the right questions.

In order to properly measure success, IBM switched their focus from measuring activity, to measuring business results. For example, IBM required that leadership development efforts were measured, for example, by their ability to do a better job than competitors in meeting customer needs and taking advantage of new opportunities faster than competitors. They designed their metrics around these measures of success, once again aligning leadership development with the organization's strategic goals.

The trendy topic of leadership is thrown around in times of growth and in times of failure to equal measure. Copying an industry standard, or the best practices recommended by a consulting firm, are quick fixes that are sure to fail. Companies can learn from IBM's approach by customizing their leadership development efforts to fit their unique processes, culture, and goals. "Those that take leadership development seriously and treat it as a core business process can overcome the pathologies and prepare teams that will be ready to step in and take their organizations to greater heights," concludes Ready.

Douglas Ready is an MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and teaches Building Game Changing Organizations: Aligning Purpose, Performance, and People at MIT Sloan Executive Education.


innovation@work Blog

At MIT Sloan Executive Education, our portfolio of non-degree programs reflect MIT Sloan's core mission—to develop principled, innovative leaders and to generate ideas that advance management practice. Subscribe to our blog to stay up-to-date on hot business topics, faculty research and news, world events, participant insights, and much more!

Sign Up For Emails

Search innovation@work Blog

Cutting-edge research and business insights presented by MIT Sloan faculty.