The question leadership facilitators fear most

Written by Alistair Gordon 11 Jul 2020

The question leadership facilitators fear most, and why

The workshop is going well. The participants are soaking up and practising a range of skills: active listening, advanced question technique, empathetic appreciative enquiry. These are, of course, foundation skills for effective leaders, which enable them to engage, motivate and drive performance from their team members.

The latest ‘real play’ simulation is being debriefed, and the benefits of a coaching style of conversation to make workplace discussions meaningful and actionable is becoming clear to the participants.

Then suddenly, a participant asks the question that immediately diverts all attention. The question is seriously loaded … and every participant can’t wait to hear the facilitator’s answer!

The question? ‘Is my manager going on this course?’

My manager doesn’t do anything like this

The premise that prompts the question is rarely spoken. The participant is implying, and most other participants are nodding their heads in agreement, that all of the skills that are currently being discussed and practised are rarely if ever modeled by their managers, or even their senior leaders.

Middle and senior management leadership programs tend to focus on ‘senior leadership business’ - executing strategy, driving innovation, building competitive advantage and focusing on the customer - rather than working on critical coaching and people leadership skills. Why?

Two reasons. Firstly, the coaching and leadership skills are assumed to be known by senior leaders because they are, well, senior. (They may even have attended a “coaching skills” program.)

Second, business and strategy skills are typically what the middle managers and senior leaders say they want.


The serious concern in training front line leaders in skills that their managers don’t have is that this training can have unintended consequences.

Having been made aware of what effective leadership skills look like, and having seen the power of them being applied, some of the best talent in the organisation can conclude that they wouldn’t learn anything new from, or be developed by, their current manager, so seek employment elsewhere.

A kneejerk reaction to this news can be the cancelling of front line leadership programs. But a range of measures can be undertaken that simultaneously builds the skills of the managers and front line participants to ensure senior leaders consistently exhibit the right behaviours. It may take some effort to talk the CEO around but the success stats are convincing.

Persuading senior leaders to revisit and develop their basic skills

To bring about change, the new skill and behaviour training programs offered to lower levels are either missed or ignored by the senior leadership team. And the lack of coaching capability among middle and senior leaders is widespread. There is often a misalignment between how executives imagine they are leading versus the general perception.

In two recent networking lunches, representatives from fifteen different organisations broadly agreed that one of the greatest challenges faced in organisational development is persuading middle managers and more senior leaders that they need to revisit and develop their foundation leadership skills.

Various reasons for senior leader reticence were offered:

  • Leaders were not aware of any deficiencies in their coaching skills - and few people in the organisation were game to tell them

  • They felt it would be demeaning to have to relearn basic skills - they are, after all, senior leaders and presumed to know all this stuff

  • Leaders did not feel the skills merited mastering

  • The OD department had never suggested it

The solution?

Insisting on attendance for these programs generally doesn’t work.

There are, however, several narratives we have seen work, each of which being completely dependent on the circumstances and mindset of the executives needing to be influenced:

  • What got us here, won’t get us there - A facilitated conversation with the senior executives in the business about whether what got them to a senior level will keep them there - and expanding their value add given the dramatic changes in the marketplace and workforce in the last five years. Executives are likely to conclude they need to (a) brush up some existing skills (b) learn some new skills and (c) engage the new workforce differently.

  • Strategic leadership culture - A facilitated discussion that undertakes an audit of existing leadership culture establishes what can be kept and what needs to be changed.

  • ‘Sheep dip’ - A compulsory, short program about – for example, conversational skills – is run across the business. In our experience of this approach, the leaders who are already on the bus progress further. But many of those that most need to be influenced don’t really believe the content is aimed at them. They equate their attendance with ‘showing support’ for the initiative. These initiatives stand a better chance of success if a conversation has been had with them before hand. And if these programs have a ’call out’ clause - that allows anyone, at any level, to call out poor behaviour from anyone else – then chances of real change are further enhanced.

  • Socialisation - This version isn’t our favoured approach, but it can have some impact in the absence of the real conversations described above. Once the OD team has developed a program for middle or more junior managers, the behaviours are ‘stress tested’ by the senior group, under the guise of getting the approval of the senior leaders to inculcate these new behaviours across the business.

From our experience, we know that when these discussions are facilitated by an objective, external consultant, the participants are more likely to accept the examples provided to the group from a broader benchmark and having their behaviours told like it is.

But none of these options are likely to be effective unless the senior leaders – as a group or, more importantly, individually – commit to modelling the right leadership behaviours, and understand why it is in their personal interest, not just the organisational interest, to do so.

To get a personal briefing on how the HFL design team shape programs that intimately involve participants managers through the program, and indeed help those managers pick up key skills, please contact us using the form below, or call one of our offices.

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