Leadership team development

Leadership team development

When team members think about the rewards they receive from their jobs, after the pay and benefits, the next most tangible reward is the learning and development that come from training, job assignments, and experiences at work.

Leaders who create positive developmental experiences for their team members are much more apt to create an inspired and motivated team and then know how to be a good leader. Conversely, when team members see a job as just work, with no learning or development, then it is far more difficult for them to find their work inspirational.

One of the authors, while in graduate school, was a research assistant for a professor who every they decade summarized the research from every journal in his specialty. The assigned task was to read every article and classify the research methods used. Hundreds of journal issues needed to be read and analyzed.


On a rare occasion, an article would be of some interest to a young, naïve graduate student. But the majority of the time it was simply a boring and meaningless job. It took a great deal of discipline and fortitude just to walk to the library and begin reading every day. At the end of the semester, the student made a frantic effort to get an assignment with another professor. Grading statistics tests would have felt like a huge promotion. In this case, there was no real learning, no development, and hence no inspiration just drudgery.

But think of how exciting this assignment could have been had it been positioned and managed in a different way. In hindsight, the professor could have made it into a great developmental opportunity for a student. What a rare opportunity to be paid to read a decade’s worth of literature in your field! Periodic discussions with the professor about interesting articles that had been reviewed would have made the project come to life. Merely understanding what the professor was actually seeking for his teaching and research purposes would have made a huge difference.

If the student had known how the professor would use this information, it could have been a far more fruitful endeavor. Permission to dismiss articles that were peripheral to the professor’s interests or treat them lightly would have made the student feel trusted and more of a colleague rather than a hired hand or servant and would have saved considerable time and wasted effort.


When people have opportunities for development, there are several personal benefits.

  • They are more likely to stay employed by the organization.
  • Their satisfaction with their job increases.
  • They are more productive.
  • They produce higher-quality work.

However, in addition to the individuals’ personal satisfaction, there is a secondary payoff from the individual with leadership characteristics have created a learning environment. Simply put,  the organization keeps getting better, and people like to be associated with a winning organization.

When leadership communication creates a climate of learning, the outcome is a continual improvement on the part of the organization. Mistakes do not get repeated. Information that is held by one group is freely passed to others who can benefit from it. The dependency that the organization might have had on a few people is now shared more broadly. Why is development so inspiring?


Carol Dweck, who teaches at Stanford University, has spent the last 30 years studying why some people succeed and others fail. Her answers are surprising to many. It isn’t about IQ points or other abilities that are bestowed on someone by an unseen hand. It has much more to do with their personal effort and application. And at the heart of it, she found that beginning at an early age, people begin to be divided into two camps.

The first camp consists of those whose fundamental goal in life is to prove their worth to the people about them. They believe that their abilities are fixed as if set in stone at an early age. And if you believe that your abilities are fixed at a high level, that means that you don’t need to work hard. If your abilities happen to be fixed at a low level, then you are destined to failure, and working hard would not change anything. In either case, you have to repeatedly prove yourself. Your goal in life is to avoid serious challenges and escape experiencing failure that will show up the deficiencies that you’ve tried to keep hidden. This is the path of stagnation.

The second group is made up of those whose fundamental goal in life is to improve. For them, life is made up of a series of opportunities to be exploited and challenges to be overcome. This growth mindset is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress. You seek growth and opportunity.

These people believe that talent is built over time and comes as a consequence of hard work and effort. Clearly, the most successful people are those who fall into the “improving” category. Dweck reveals how high achievers in all fields—music, science, education, literature, sports, and business—apply the growth mindset to achieve results.


The encouraging news, however, is that mindsets can be changed. People can move from believing that their capabilities were fixed at an early age and can come to believe that “smart is something you get” and that people can actually progress throughout most of the course of their life.

Dweck’s research shows that parents are a powerful force in shaping the mindset of a child. While her research focused on how parents and teachers influenced young children in their developmental stages, we are quite certain that how people with leadership traits in business treat their subordinates can have a similar, profound impact on how people view themselves on these two dimensions.

The right kind of leadership communication skills helps people move from a “fixed” or “proving” mindset to one of “growth” and “improving.”

Research on the brain’s ability to develop new neural networks is currently taking place at several research institutions and serves to confirm Dweck’s fundamental thesis.

For example, in 1999, Princeton University released a stunning announcement regarding a reversal of a long-held theory that the capacity of the brain was fixed at birth. The headlines read: “Scientists Discover Addition of New Brain Cells in Highest Brain Area”

The article went on to explain that this discovery confirmed and then explained that this reverses a strongly held belief that had existed for the last 100 years to the effect that the number of brain cells in primates was established at birth and that a certain number died each year through the adult years. This had strong implications for humans because humans and monkeys have essentially the same brain structures.

This view that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and that as we aged, a certain number of these cells died each year was in virtually every textbook on psychology published before 2000.

This meant that mentally we were coasting on a long glide path through life, but always descending. Now the consensus among human brain researchers is that not only is the brain adding new cells, but at the same time new connections between brain cells are being made.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There clearly are some things that the leadership development programs must think and feel in order to be effective at developing subordinates, and thus be more inspirational and motivational.

  1. Do you possess a true concern for the development of others? This genuine desire to see others get better is the first quality that is an absolute necessity. As most people begin their career, their focus is basically on their own success and making their mark in the organization. Once people have demonstrated their own capabilities, a number of them develop the desire to help other people make their mark.
  2. Are you deeply committed to helping others succeed? This question is obviously related to the previous one. Rejoicing at the success of others requires a maturity and selflessness that is not always found in leadership characteristics list who are clawing their way up the corporate ladder and who view other capable people as threats. Effective leaders are ones who make the transition from being concerned primarily about themselves and personal advancement to putting the team before self.
  3.  Are continual improvement and learning personally important to you? This obviously argues that the best leaders are part of the “growth” and “improving” category in Dweck’s terminology. It is virtually impossible to be a great leader if you are in the camp of “proving” and “fixed abilities.”

Some people with leadership qualities believe that one of their prime opportunities and responsibilities is to help people learn. They will carve out time for people to attend relevant seminars and engage in activities that help to develop them. They budget generously for external development activities. They take time in staff meetings to discuss what was learned from each major project. These discussions often take the form of “after action reviews” that cover what had been intended to happen, what actually transpired, what caused the difference, and what should happen in the future for such events.

These three questions do not identify action steps that a leader can just arbitrarily take. They are visceral and bone-deep convictions and attitudes about people and their worth to the organization. The action steps being proposed next, however, work best when the three conditions above are solidly in place.


Our research revealed some specific actions that leaders engaged in leadership team development.

Gives Coaching

An enormous amount has been written on coaching, its value to the individual, and its payoff for the organization. Dweck’s research provides some insightful tips about the best approach to coaching. By translating Dweck’s research on younger people to adult employees in a firm, you get some valuable suggestions.

Provides Actionable Feedback

Lots of people give advice. Managers frequently give advice to their subordinates. They, in turn, receive advice from various gurus who write books and give seminars based on only their opinions. But advice can be treacherous when it is either incorrect or not actionable. Often it is incorrect, especially if the person giving it didn’t really understand the situation. The other problem, however, is that advice can simply be impossible to implement.

Part of that difficulty often comes from the general nature of the advice. We are reminded of the observation of Professor Karl Weick of the University of Michigan, in which he noted that any piece of advice could be two or three things, but could never be all three.

The three things were as follows:

  1. General
  2. Simple
  3. Accurate

Pick up any popular book on the subject of visionary leadership or leadership development goals. Randomly open it to some chapter that gives advice on a particular topic. Chances are that whatever the principle being professed, there are exceptions to it. In fact, you can often find two opposing points of view that have generally gained wide acceptance.


This is why, while we respect the opinions of so many authors and leaders, we choose to focus on areas where we can provide evidence that is quantifiable, objective, and empirical as it relates to leadership goals.

As children, our parents often passed on proverbs that had been taught to them by their parents. The amusing fact is that virtually every proverb has a counterpart that contradicts it. Yet, when asked about each proverb separately, most people will indicate that they believe both to be true. Examples of this strange phenomenon include the following:

  • Time waits for no man.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • He who hesitates is lost.
  • Look before you leap.
  • The only constant changes.
  • The order follows regulation.
  • If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.
  • Don’t beat your head against a stone wall.
  • Hitch your wagon to a star.
  • The grass is always greener on the other side.
  • The wish is the father of the deed.
  • If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
  • Life is what you make it.
  • What will be, will be.
  • Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
  • Quit while you’re ahead.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole.
  • Paddle your own canoe.
  • Two heads are better than one.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • Many hands make light work.
  • Ultimately there is but one truth.
  • There are two sides to every story.
  • Establish the rule and allow no variation.
  • There is an exception to every rule.

Argyris’s advice on how to rectify this problem is to do the following:

  • Specify the sequence of behavior required to produce an outcome. The more specific this is, the more likely it is that the advice will be successfully implemented.
  • Define causality and make it exceedingly transparent (what causes us to get certain effects). Help the receiver to understand why what you are proposing is going to work. These are the steps of classic “behavior modeling” in which the facilitator provides either alive or videotaped example for the learner to watch, with a clear explanation of the key points being demonstrated and why they were important.
  • Causality embedded in advice is testable in normal situations. Therefore, allow the person to test the advice being received. Suggest ways in which that testing process can be conducted. What tests could easily be constructed to determine whether this advice was working?
  • Specify the values or variables that govern the outcomes of the advice. What constitutes a good strategy, for example, may depend on whether the organization wants growth at all costs or prefers risk avoidance. The recipient of advice needs to know the values that underlie the advice and also the outcomes that are being sought.

Argyris’s suggestions take advice giving to a new level of sophistication.

Delegate in a Manner That Develops People

When tasks or projects are delegated to a subordinate, there is a seemingly infinite number of messages that can be conveyed. Here are a few of the messages that the recipient will listen for:

  1. What the task consists of
  2. Why the leader has delegated this task
  3. Why the leader has chosen the person or group to whom the task or project is being given
  4. What the leader conceives as the outcome
  5. How the leader would like to be kept informed
  6. The seriousness or consequences of the project or task

Clearly, the leader can approach this delegation process with a strong task perspective and ignore the developmental implications. That is, the leader is concerned about the need to get something done on time, on a budget, and with a minimal amount of turmoil being caused to the organization. Period. End of delegation discussion. The outcome, however, is that not much inspiration and motivation is likely to come from that conversation.

Let’s assume that the leader sees the potential in this delegation conversation to provide a great deal of inspiration and motivation to the people receiving this project. Now the discussion on why the leader has delegated the task will take on a completely different character. The conversation could well include some dialogue like, “I see this project as a real opportunity to help you develop your skills in coordinating with the design group, operations, and marketing” or, “One of my reasons for delegating this to you is to prepare you to be able to handle much bigger projects on your own.”

From there, the leader could say something like, “Sondra, I’ve chosen you for several reasons. I think you have the technical background to pull it off. You’ve demonstrated an extremely conscientious attitude about getting things done on time. I thought this would be a great developmental assignment.

There are some others in the group who could probably pull it off successfully, but they wouldn’t grow from the experience as much as I think you will.” (Think about how Sondra is going to feel when she reflects on this conversation. Ponder the powerful and motivating messages that the leader has just conveyed. Some are overtly stated, but there are many messages that are “between the lines” and not spoken.)

But it doesn’t need to end there. Now the leader continues the delegation dialogue by saying, “Here’s what I envision to be the final deliverable that you and your team will produce. But I acknowledge that my conception is still a bit fuzzy. You’ll have the opportunity to sharpen it. And the important point is that you’ll have a strong voice in deciding how you get this all done. If you want to discuss with me how you plan to go about it, I’m available. That’s your choice.” (Again, since the strong messages this leader has just sent and their motivational potential.)

Next, the leader discusses the ideal way to be kept informed. “Sondra, because this project is so important and high profile, I feel some need to be kept abreast of your progress. Please understand that this is driven to a large extent by the people above me, but it’s also because I’m very interested in knowing about your progress. How about us meeting once a week for the first month, and then maybe we should cut back to twice a month.

All I want is your overall appraisal of progress against the milestones that you’ll set in the project plan. If I can be of any help, please know that I’m available. The purpose of these meetings is not for me to insert myself or meddle; it’s for me to be informed. I think one of my jobs is to provide ‘air cover’ for you and your team, and I can do that best if I’m knowledgeable about what’s going on.” (Again, the leader has conveyed some strong messages to Sondra that in most cases will have a profound motivational impact.)

In summary, the delegation process that is so familiar to leaders and carried out so frequently can occur in a perfunctory fashion. In that case, the motivational dimension of it will be minimal at best. Or, delegation can be elevated to an important discussion and can be wrapped with important messages that inspire and that generate positive motivation. It is all about how the leader elects to conduct the discussion.

Structure the Job with Development as the Objective

When a leader structures the job of each person in the group, there are many factors to consider. Clearly, certain activities belong together. Many processes function best when they have one person overseeing the entire chain of activities. Good leadership skills require the person in charge to take many things into account when designing any job.

But when structuring a job, one dimension is often forgotten. One of the strongest drivers of motivation for any employee is the fundamental nature of the job itself. Precisely what does this person do during the working day? Expanding the employee’s responsibilities usually increases the level of motivation.

Providing greater variety (within some boundaries, obviously) usually also has that effect. Having the job expand in its breadth and depth will, in most cases, greatly expand the motivation of the person doing the job.

Frederick Herzberg, an early student of motivation in the workplace, came to the conclusion that the largest determinant of motivation for most people in organizations was directly proportional to the nature of the job itself. The huge mistake made by some of the leaders of the Industrial Revolution was to simplify jobs so that a person with a minimal amount of skill and experience could perform the work adequately. While there was a compelling logic that seemed to be driven by the economics of hiring less-skilled, lower-cost workers, there were huge unintended consequences.

Dumbed-down jobs created apathetic workers who over time moved from not caring to ultimately becoming hostile toward management. Luckily, we have moved a long distance from many of those practices. However, insufficient attention is paid to the simple principle of making jobs challenging, responsible, with reasonable variety, and capable of helping people grow in the ways they desire.

Not every worker wants to grow and develop, but those who want that make remarkably greater contributions to their employers.

Make Developmental Experiences Available (Classes, Courses, Trips, Site Visits, and Benchmarking Opportunities)

One of the best organizations for excellent learning and development is the U.S. Marine Corps. A review of its recruits would reveal that the young men and women who entered the corps were of high quality, but they were not recruited from the elite universities and colleges of America. Most could not have gained admission to schools with extremely high admission standards.

But after a few years, the same review would conclude that these individuals are now quite exceptional leaders. Their rigorous training has worked real magic. One aspect of their training experience that creates great value is that after every exercise, there is a debriefing activity in which decisions are discussed, alternative decisions are talked about, and feedback is provided. These are called “after action reviews.”

Every business organization and the public-sector agency has an enormous number of debriefing opportunities, but most of the time these organizations fail to sit down after a mission has ended, a decision has been made, or a project is concluded and debriefs the experience. Such concrete reviews of actual events can be a much more meaningful learning experience than a class on how to conduct effective meetings, decision making, or project management.

The principle is simply that some of the best training opportunities are those that are directly linked to work issues. Leaders should take advantage of major on-the-job events and follow up with each of their employees regarding what was learned and how that learning can be applied in the future.

Go to our website:   www.ncmalliance.com


  1. Great post! This includes a lot to take away and apply immediately. I’ve personally tried including weekly time for developing my team through 1 hour discussions on various topics that my people are interested in. We don’t always make it directly work-related; sometime we talk about ways to advance in our personal lives. I think talking about non-work related material can help the effectiveness of a team by enhancing cohesion and shared mutual understanding.


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