The topic of leadership has always interested me. Since the early days of my career at Procter & Gamble, I have been struck by how many managers lack leadership skills. Despite substantial training efforts, a multi-billion leadership development industry, and more than 70 years of research, organizations are struggling to grow leadership skills. Few organizations have enough talented leaders in place to ensure succession. So what can we do to develop our leadership skills and the leadership skills of our organizations?

Based on my background, I have a bias for experience. My most challenging assignments gave me the confidence that I could lead. The latest global leadership research conducted by Deloitte provides surprising data. It reveals that reliance on formal leadership programs as the only means of leadership development doesn’t foster leadership talent.

Leaders learn most effectively by connecting with and learning from others through exposure to peers and colleagues on a daily basis. A combination of peer feedback, client interactions and social networking make exposure the most impactful way to develop leadership capability.

The good news: exposure doesn’t have to be costly.

The bad news: leadership development cannot be outsourced to executive MBAs.

This finding puts pressure on organizations to rethink their leadership development. Less instructor-led classroom training often outsourced to business schools. More real-life, on-the-job experiences with other leaders and peers.

Leadership is about influencing the behaviors of others towards the desired goal. It’s a social construct.  It’s thus not surprising that it is best learned in a social environment which is what exposure provides. Continuous exposure is the most effective learning method to develop critical leadership skills which are defined as business acumen, change management, and capability development.

Exposure to relationships that encourage learning has the highest impact on leadership development. Leaders who have grown with exposure to other leaders are better at anticipating and responding to change, at developing other leaders and driving innovation.

Exposure leadership is also cost-effective. It’s about using real-time learning available in the organization and facilitate it smartly.  The catalyst to making leadership “stick” seems to be in live feedback and the accountability developed by peers.

Andrea Derler, Leadership and Succession Research Leader at Deloitte Consulting recommends three questions if you are interested in developing your leadership skills:

  • Who is an example of what I aspire to be?
  • Who can provide me with constructive feedback?
  • Who can introduce me to a strong network of leaders?

Several organizations have implemented a version of exposure to promote leadership development. One of them might inspire you to start your own experiment in exposure to leadership.

  • Leadership pods at Adobe. This relies on the concept of peer coaching in groups of 8 employees with diverse age, function, experience. The pods are facilitated from within by one of its members with accountability. Over time, the members of each pod create a support network.
  • Merck multigenerational roundtable. Merck established in-person meetings of senior leaders with millennial employees. Junior and senior leaders interact and discuss what’s on their mind. The members of each roundtable are exposed over time to different generations and different leadership styles. This might lead to reverse-mentoring.

How can small organizations encourage leadership development through exposure?

Small organization might want to look for exposure through local business networks. Look for mentors outside of your organization to grow and gain the social skills required to grow leadership skills.