By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
Leadership development programs have been under attack during the last couple of years because the results have not been promising. We see reports that workplace leadership is still lacking at all levels.
Indeed, not all attempts to “make” leaders are created equal. Matt Norquist, CEO of Linkage, a global leadership development consultancy, told Forbes, “I think that, despite all the effort, a lot of the companies I see aren’t making sustainable progress.”
When Best Practices Are Not Best Practices
We too often hear of new leadership development methods. Everyone then jumps on the bandwagon to implement those new trends. However, the problem with that approach is (1) we need to be careful that we are not adopting a fad and (2) our focus should be on what programs will work in our designated organizations.
The concept of best practices has been around a while. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a best practice as “a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results, and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.”
Based on the definition, I view the concept of best practices as being guidelines or an example rather than a mandated practice. Some companies justify the implementation of programs, such as a leadership development initiative, based on what someone else has done. What’s wrong with that?
An ‘Aha’ Moment with Total Quality Management
I remember reading the history of Total Quality Management, known as TQM. To make a long story short, William Deming, an American engineer and management consultant, became interested in applying statistical techniques developed by Walter Shewhart, known as the “father of statistical quality control,” to non-manufacturing processes.
In 1939, Deming joined the U.S. Census Bureau and applied the method to the bureau’s workforce. He saw a significant improvement in the agency’s operations. Deming continued to run experiments in other settings with a goal of using his results to improve American business practices. However, at the time, U.S. organizations were doing well, so they rejected his techniques. So Deming took his expertise to Japan where he developed what is now known as TQM.
His work in Japan was impressive and soon U.S. companies attempted to implement what he had done in Japan. However, initially some of the implementations were unsuccessful. Why? In essence, what worked in Japan didn’t work in the United States. The biggest reason could have been the differences in work cultures. Japanese workers traditionally devote their working lives to one company. The typical Japanese company in turn has a paternalistic relationship with its workers providing far more for their welfare – schooling, meals, daycare and other services – than just a salary.
I use the story of TQM to support the idea of “when a best practice is not a best practice.” The value of a best practice can be insignificant if an organization does not factor in culture, employee make-up, leadership abilities, and other variables when attempting to implement a process or program.
An Innovative and Promising Approach
Customization is necessary if you want a good fit. We are fond of that term “a good fit” when discussing whether or not a potential candidate will become a good employee. The same argument holds true when attempting to implement a companywide practice or program.
The Annual Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conference is coming up in June. One of the features that SHRM has implemented is a virtual board where members can post notes such as meeting up places during the conference, brainstorming on potential projects, and other social and conference information.
One of the posted themes this year is the development of a leadership program. The post was generated by a senior human resources professional. Some of the initial posted responses were what you would expect, that is, ideas about what has been successful at other organizations, off-the-shelf leadership development programs and other similar thoughts and suggestions.
One suggestion that caught my attention became the basis of this blog. The suggestion was that we share what we have done at our organizations and discuss what worked and what didn’t work.
Our foundation for discussion would be the best practices other organizations have implemented, but the results would be an outline of pros and cons as they relate to our specific organizations. Participants could take the information and customize an approach that might work in their organizations.
Why am I excited about this approach? Because:
- Best practices are seen as a guideline and foundation point.
- Peers have the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of what has worked for them, and participants can customize a draft approach based on this feedback.
- Peer groups are formed for future vetting of ideas.
We can learn what the American business leaders learned during the Total Quality Management era. We don’t have to accept the practice as it is written. Rather, we can take the spirit of the process and customize a program to fit into our designated organization. One size does not fit all!
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.