The Changing Role of Executive Leadership

By Jeanne Kerr, Director of OD and Assessments


consider how to best develop their current executives

to groom future leaders


Organizations need to consider how to best develop their current executives and to groom future leaders. Traditional programs may not fit the speed of change most organizations face nor the need to prove return on investment. What are the key trends in executive development that learning and development specialists need to consider?

1. How has executive leadership changed in recent years?

Today’s leader needs to be much more than a functional expert. Today, organizations are buffeted constantly by change. Effective leaders need to be change agents. They need to be able to inspire a shared vision and rally employees behind that decision. They also need to have a big picture perspective and understand how decisions they make for their own teams have a spider web effect on the organization as a whole.

2. What skills are most critical for executives?

Communication, systems thinking, empathy, and collaboration are core skills – and these are rarely taught in business school.

Communication is a complex skill. It requires thinking as much about how things are said as what is being said. Most important is the ability to communicate the “why” to a wide range of stakeholders. When people know why decisions are made, they are much more likely to buy in and support new direction. How leaders communicate is also important. Passion, authenticity, and enthusiasm are what inspire others to believe in the company direction.

Systems thinking: Executives need to take a whole-system approach to managing organizations if they wish to maximize organizational performance. Systems thinking is all about cutting through complexity to arrive at powerful, sustainable solutions. It is the exact opposite of siloed or linear thinking. When leaders want to transform their organizations, they must be able to see things from multiple perspectives: financial, process, technology, and people. Systems thinking also enables situational leadership—meaning leaders are more flexible and able to act in tandem with varied stakeholder needs.

Empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience and feelings. It isn’t easy because it does not mean to put ourselves into their shoes, but rather to understand how they feel in those shoes. According to global leadership consulting firm DDI, empathy is the biggest single leadership skill needed today. Empathy drives trust and loyalty. Most leaders prefer to consider themselves “no nonsense,” and miss the point that such an attitude will drive people away. Since the most talented tend to leave first, such leaders quickly find themselves with a weak and unproductive workforce.

Collaboration: Collaboration, interestingly, requires all three of the above skills.  To collaborate, leaders need to truly value the ideas and opinions of others rather than putting their own team or unit’s needs first. They must be able to communicate with empathy, balancing their own motivations with those of other stakeholders. They must be willing to break down walls and openly share information. They need to think systemically in order to see what the organization as a whole might need both for the short and long term.

3. What are the best ways to train these skills?

Executives are rarely amenable to sitting through days (or even hours) of formal training especially if it is theoretical in nature. A combination of action learning (where a real-life business problem is addressed and “just-in-time” skills training is brought in), stretch assignments, rotation assignments (to gain deeper understanding of their colleagues’ worlds), and stretch assignments supported by a mentor or executive coach are effective and well received. Executive coaching can also be used to help leaders target and develop needed communication, problem solving, and empathy skills that have been identified through 360 and other assessments. Formal training can be used to reinforce these other learning approaches and is particularly effective in sessions where executive team members attend together and receive real time coaching and feedback.

4. How can organizations measure the ROI in executive leadership development programs?

There are two approaches organizations can take to measure the effectiveness of their leadership development programs: objective and subjective. Objective measurement means identifying the organizations’ key metrics such as KPIs, revenue and market share. These typically are metrics the organization already has in place. The organization should identify the metrics that are most readily positively influenced by the training and track these over time. For example, if Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a key metric and improved collaboration is needed to improve that score, leaders can participate in a variety of activities designed to improve collaboration. Over time, the NPS should improve.

Subjective measures are typically based on assessments and surveys. Engagement surveys often report on communication, for example, and these scores can be correlated to KPI improvement. In other words, we target communication skills for our leaders. We track improvements in that category on our engagement survey over time along with the KPIs the business seeks to improve. The improvement in engagement is typically a leading indicator for business improvement.

360 assessments can be used to track individual leader skills based on employee feedback and also measure overall improvement in key soft skill categories of the entire leadership team. 

The key to measuring training effectiveness and ROI is to target business metrics that are already in place and look for correlations in improvement between business metrics, employee surveys, customer surveys, and employee feedback.