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Why India Inc needs to revisit leadership development programmes


At the beginning of last year, before the pandemic struck, an acquaintance was showing me around the campus of a recently established private university. As a senior administrator of the institute, my guide took pride in the splendid facilities, from the swanky new lecture-rooms, the library, and the commodious cafeteria, right down to the postcard-like, impeccably pruned lawns, still fresh with the morning dew. But I could see that he had kept the best for the last.

“Our training interventions for corporates,” he beamed, “are cutting-edge. We recently concluded a flagship Women’s Leadership Programme, for one of our major clients – over 80 high-performing female managers from across the country undertook it, at this campus.” I was expecting him to add something, but seeing that he didn’t, asked: “So, how many male personnel attended the training?” There was a perplexed pause. And then he said, brows knit: “But this is a Women’s Leadership Programme, no?”

Questioning the Fundamentals

Without a shred of doubt, 2020 has been the year that has put the spotlight on the HR function, and the office of the CHRO, in particular – as an engine and enabler of change. This means that in terms of competency building, many aspects that were previously relegated to some unimportant, fuzzy bundle of ‘soft skills’ have finally come to the fore – and that’s great. What’s distinctly less great, though, is that despite all the ongoing disruptions in every sphere of our lives, company executives still cling doggedly to outmoded approaches to training and skill development. One must begin to challenge this, by revisiting the fundamental questions.

What should be our target audience?

Let’s return to our example of the Women’s Leadership Programme. Like it or not, gender bias is still very much present in the Indian workplace of today. In this context, therefore, it’d be not just ineffectual but perhaps even counterproductive, to co-locate only a large group of highly driven and ambitious female managers, regale them with case studies of women who have reached the pinnacle in their fields, assure these professionals that they too, can change the world – and then promptly send them back to a conservative, patriarchal Indian ecosystem, where over 85% of the workforce and 100% of the CXOs, are male.

While it’s clearly necessary to have the principal beneficiaries, women professionals, attend such a training – it’s not sufficient, by a long chalk. What empowerment does the company genuinely wish to open up for high-performing women professionals? Will there be an increase in women recruits – across levels, including middle and senior management? How is this change likely to impact the predominantly male proportion of the workforce, and what sensitization and interventions would they require? Questions such as these must be asked well ahead of the training – and their answers be allowed to determine the audience.

What skills are we looking to build?

This should warrant a fresh, critical inquiry into the skills themselves – instead of designing interventions around pre-specified attributes that “we’ve always been using.” Markets, customer trends, and technologies are in a constant state of flux – effects that have only been accelerated by the global pandemic. Adjusting to them means that within organizations, job roles themselves need to not only change, but themselves remain flexible for calibration. The old ways of mapping and fixing roles to specific skills no longer hold. Therefore, questions around leadership need to be re-contextualized to emergent needs.

What behavioral attributes are needed to be exhibited by leaders today? Are there nuances that are sector, domain, and even gender – specific? What does people management mean in a hybrid, WFH centric mode of operations? A cursory glance at current thought leadership on his topic would reveal a broad, emerging consensus around attributes, such as emotional intelligence and empathy, agility, creativity and innovation, grit and resilience, collaboration, persuasion and negotiation skills. Which in turn ought to bring up a few equally interesting questions. For instance, in what way can one teach resilience? And, are there alternate means of building organizational resilience, besides focused training interventions on it?

How do we measure these skills?

Mapped against the needs of the emergent global workplace, many of the mainstream psychometric tools, which have been around for decades, are now seen to be demonstrating a couple of challenges. The first is a matter of construct. Regardless of the indicators, types, derailers or other labels, on which they are based, the models are largely structured in definite terms, with a fixed set of competencies, skills or attributes-to-avoid, corresponding to specific job-roles. This makes them naturally less adaptive in scenarios of ambiguity and change, where the underlying skillsets themselves are undergoing an exploratory, expansive, process.

The second challenge has to do with approach. Traditional psychometrics follow the age-old ‘Disease Model’ of medical practice. A patient exhibits certain symptoms, which are diagnosed by the doctor, who gives the appropriate medicine, and this in turn leads to the patient being cured. When transposed onto the workplace, this means searching for professionals’ ‘development needs’ – and then devise means to minimize areas, or extent, of lacunae. But this ‘fixing the bug’ approach is demonstrably less efficient when the need of the hour is to identify the strengths – not lacunae – of professionals, and optimize their usage, for better results.

In the post-pandemic paradigm, characterized by cycles of unlearning, re-skilling and competency development, organizations should increasingly revisit the traditional tenets that have shaped training interventions. And alongside this, work cohesively with assessment tools that focus on potential and intrinsic abilities, mapped to emergent market needs.

Avik Chanda is the CEO-Founder of NUVAH ELINT LLP, and the bestselling author of “From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption”.

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