Business Transformation

The reason leadership development isn’t working

As Simon Sinek writes in Start with Why, ‘Some in management positions operate as if they are in a tree of monkeys. They make sure that everyone at the top of the tree looking down sees only smiles. But all too often, those at the bottom looking up see only asses’.

Apart from being a frankly hilarious image, why does that analogy matter when considering why leadership development isn’t working?

Because if those at the top see only smiles, they will have no sense of the urgency with which we need to develop our leaders.  As a result they may believe that a jolly good holiday, Covid-containment and a reinvigorated focus on growth may be all that we need to spring back into shape in 2022.

Whereas those at the bottom are seeing only asses.  It means that bullying and harassment claims are on the rise, engagement is wavering and attrition is rising. In short, we are seeing once-solid working relationships breaking down to the point where recent PWC research tells us that what workers want more than anything else is – decent co-workers.  

The fulcrum of Sinek’s analogy is clearly the middle manager, the one translating from asses to smiles and vice versa.  At BoldHR we call modern middle managers the B-Suite, and without the B-Suite, transformation fails.

So how can we develop the B-Suite to reconnect the disconnect, rebuild trust and recreate high performance?

We’re investing in the wrong things.

Traditional training for experienced leaders doesn’t work.  Most of them already have the tools, but for some reason they are not using them, so you need to focus on mindset rather than skillset.  More tools rarely used is just clutter – and that’s last thing any of us need right now!

Most internally developed training programs are too generic to add real value to an already-experienced B-Suite leader.

Organisations still prefer to invest in coaching-by-your-leader. While it certainly has value for on the-job performance, it’s problematic if you truly want to level up your leaders. 

  • Some leaders don’t know how to help you play at a different level. How they operate is largely intuitive, and they struggle to pass on the ‘how’ in a cohesive and valuable way. 
  • Some leaders don’t want to level up their mid-level leaders; they are too valuable exactly as they are. 
  • None of us have been here before.  No leader alive has led teams in a global pandemic. So looking to them for the answers feels a little unfair, and a more than a little fruitless.

What does work.

What the B-Suite wants above all is to learn from experienced peers and experts – just look at the dramatic rise in popularity of closed professional chat forums and peer networks. 

They also want confidentiality – they feel underconfident in their leadership capabilities in the face of the great unknown, and they don’t really want to expose that to work colleagues for fear of the implication to their career.

DDI’s 2020 Global Leadership Forecast showed that the number one preference for high potential B-Suite leaders is external mentoring. Yet that doesn’t even feature in the top five investments by organisations.  

What’s in the way?

There’s a frustrating mismatch between B-Suite needs and employer investment.  The mistmatch exists across development experience, budgets and focus areas.

Experience: Millennials do not rate training programs – especially those that their executive like.  

Cost: Organisations feel they can’t afford leadership training for the B-Suite – because they are a large cohort.  Instead, significant training dollars are spent on a small selection of leaders – executive, emerging, diverse or high performing programs take up the bulk of investment.  This leaves proportionally little for the large number of middle managers in the B-Suite who arguably have a bigger impact on day to day culture and performance.  

Focus: With the arrival of Covid on top of an already increasing disrupted landscape comes greater complexity in determining which skills will best serve leaders in the future. 

Deloitte’s 2019 human capital survey told us that the most critical competencies for 21st-century leadership are:  

  1. leading through more complexity and ambiguity  
  2. leading through influence  
  3. leading more quickly

And these remain the same – with the new addition of mastering the art of driving performance through compassionate accountability, which takes into account the changing expectations of a disconnected, burned-out and sometimes rebellious workforce.  

Your B-Suite is what McKinsey calls a ‘critical but neglected cohort’ – the most important leadership resource that you can develop. 

They are literally the glue that holds  an organisation together, without whom transformation, performance, culture and engagement flounders. The rules have changed for this group, and they are uncertain and exhausted.  We must invest in them as a priority.  


Written by Rebecca Houghton.

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Rebecca Houghton
Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level. Her passion is helping to evolve how leaders think, take action and relate to others, working with leaders and leadership teams to achieve greater impact.


Rebecca Houghton is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.