Developing leaders at all levels

At a recent launch of the CIPD and Tomorrow's Company initiative - Tomorrow's Leaders - once again we debated the challenges behind the development of effective leaders at all levels in the modern workplace. Too often we are critical of the leaders themselves, but are organisations providing the right kind of support and development opportunities for leaders, when the challenge of people management and leadership is growing with more and more diversity in the workforce, diversity and flexibility in ways of working, and all in a continued context of uncertainty and rapid change?

We need to do a better job of developing leadership capabilities at all levels. It is the line managers and supervisors who manage most of the people and will have most impact on the execution and delivery of the products and services of our enterprises. Yet in the past we have tended to focus on leadership development at senior levels or on the so called high potentials, and imagined a line between leaders and managers - doing the right thing and doing things right as Peter Drucker put it - yet managers need to be leaders as well, to engage and get the most out of their teams, to manage the conflicts and issues, to ensure alignment to purpose and values, and to recognise individuals in a diverse world. This requires self-awareness, knowledge of good people management practice and skills, ability to communicate, authenticity and openness and many of those attributes we now focus on as critical to effective leadership.  And in today's context, it has never been more important that we do this better.

We then need to encourage and trust leaders to develop their teams, but also hold them accountable and see this as a critical part of their performance, linking these behaviours to outcomes and results.

It is concerning therefore that only 7% of HR professionals in our survey saw the role of HR function in conducting a regular audit of leadership capability to understand where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Without proper assessment and understanding, we wont know where to focus and how to provide the right interventions and support.

In our new report, we highlight a few things HR could be doing to catch up with the need for better leaders at all levels in the workplace:

  • Define what leadership means for your organisation, focusing on the common attributes needed at all levels, but also how they shift their relative emphasis at the different levels of leadership.
  • Many of these attributes will be resonate across all types of organisation so can be adapted from elsewhere, but there will also be nuances or areas of particular focus for each organisation, such as the links to the purpose of the enterprise, the business and organisational model, and the values that you want to reinforce.
  • Once defined, these attributes need to become a consistent thread reinforced through recruitment, training and development, performance management and reward.
  • Support and educate your leaders, particularly at critical transition points in their careers and job responsibilities. New managers will need support and should be prepared for their new responsibilities particularly in their first roles managing teams. Recent neuroscience insights reveal that it is only possible to break one hardwired habit at a time - managers will require some support before they start living and breathing the behaviours and values they learn in training.
  • Monitor leader performance with meaningful and robust metrics. Try to then make the links between investment in training and other support such as coaching for managers and leaders to make the case for continued investment. Review the process regularly to align it with the direction of the business strategy.

Whilst wanting to encourage more training and support for leaders at all levels, despite the significant investment in leadership and management development in the UK, it is still unclear how much of that training is worthwhile and really shifting performance and behaviours. Historically understanding and measuring learning outcomes and improvements in performance from the investments in people has been poorly or inconsistently measured and understand, and that needs to change. This is a broader initiative the CIPD is engaged with in partnership with CIMA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and we are conducting research and drawing together experience from a wide base to establish more common frameworks of human capital and organisational measurement. Over the next year we will also be taking a closer look inside organisations, in order to identify the practical barriers to real-life leadership and management.  

Find out more about our work on leadership

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  • Peter,

    Thank you for raising these points - I agree wholeheartedly.  I sincerely hope that, by working in collaboration with the professional institutes covering 'management and leadership', the CIPD and the HR profession can better understand this critical area and develop meaningful responses to help us address the lack of capability holding individuals, organisations and the wider economy back.

    My only concern is that the need is 'now'... it will no doubt take some time to develop these 'solutions', and further time to convert research findings into real, practical action, but too much discussion and debate may mean that they come too late to address the current issues...

  • Peter

    Effective communication is key to developing and enhancing leadership skills.  It's a mechanism most people find difficult especially in voicing their opinion.  Most of all it's who a leader perceives and receives feedback to action... it helps, then you know who is on your side to support you in progressing in your field!

  • Anonymous


    I agree we need to develop leadership capability at all levels within organisations.

    At it's core, I believe 'good leadership' looks the same at any level. The power of the leader to influence the world is exponentially greater, with each higher rung on the corporate ladder (or world stage if we are talking about political power).

    I think there is a need for experts in Leadership like myself (as opposed to an HR professional who is expected to deal with many other things) to collaborate more fully.

    Experts need to provide the same quality of leadership training for all levels, just in a more cost effective way for organisations with many more junior leaders. I think this is possible as often the more junior leaders I come across are already more self aware and emotionally centered than senior leaders - its about the person's development as much as knowledge on how to conduct a useful 1:1 etc...

    Hope that adds something to your discussion!

  • The ambition to develop leaders at all levels has been evident in schools for some years, in some cases embracing student-leadership.  Perhaps schools have something to offer commercial organisations here.  How about the CIPD including schools in their research - particularly as they are increasingly having to run like businesses.