Extending the ripple effects of leadership development

By Holly Custard, Ph.D., deputy director, Strada Institute for the Future of Work

Good leaders analyze and tackle problems, inspire and motivate others, build relationships, and foster collaboration in pursuit of their goals. But their impacts can also manifest through the “ripple effect” of leadership that influences others to emulate positive behaviors.

Because the attributes that make leaders effective are highly valued, employers invest heavily in executive MBA programs, “leadership development,” and professional coaching with the goal of cultivating leadership skills among aspiring executives.

But while investments in leadership development are often limited to white-collar or professional contexts, a growing body of evidence suggests that pairing leadership competencies with technical training holds potential to unlock social and economic mobility for the millions of workers who currently lack a college degree — and are not earning a living wage.

In fact, our recent analysis of career training “on-ramps” suggests that apprenticeships, and other programs that use on-the-job training with intensive skill development, may present an especially fertile context to hone and apply leadership competencies while building in-demand technical skills.

Gregory LeStage, a sought-after advisor on leadership development, believes that leadership is best learned with what is often referred to as the 70:20:10 model, where 70 percent of learning comes through participating in actual work environments, 20 from informal coaching and mentoring, and 10 from formal learning. It is a model prevalent among workforce training programs that tend to focus on learning by doing (in real jobs with real employers).

Consider the case of Climb Hire, which prepares low-income adults in the Bay Area of California for entry-level positions in technology. The program embeds leadership development through a unique “cooperative business model,” where participants become joint owners in the organization and take responsibility for each other’s success. Climb Hire founder Nitzan Pelman puts it this way: “as soon as you get a job, your job is then to pull the next person up with you and when you’re on the inside and people ask you for referral, you’re going to have opportunities to lift others up.”

i.c.stars, based in Chicago, offers a two-year training program for low-income adults to develop advanced technical skills. Their model reflects an understanding that network effects within communities are most likely to occur when the impetus for change comes from community members themselves.

i.c.stars President Sandee Kastrul explains that “teaching leadership, along with technical skills [is what] shapes the future circumstances of struggling communities.” Putting that vision into practice, however, required the fusion of leadership and technical training within a single curriculum, drawing out the similarities between building solutions as programmers and solving the real-world problems faced by participants’ communities. “Rather than waiting for someone else to solve those problems, why not solve them for ourselves? Let’s take that process, learn it, do it, and then apply it to problems in our communities.”

The success of programs like i.c.stars and Climb Hire is, in many ways, aligned with a growing body of social science that describes the ways in which knowledge and behaviors are transferred among individuals. According to Harvard professor Chris Dede, “… the single largest thing that influences people to make [a] shift is if somebody that they already know, who they trust, has made the shift…knowledge diffusion experts now use social network analysis to identify the small proportion of people in a given organization or community who other people tend to trust and rely on which isn’t necessarily the same as having power or being seen as an expert.”

Pairing technical training and leadership development makes sense and is demonstrating its impact well beyond the corporate ladder. i.c.stars now reports an 81 percent industry retention rate, with 99 percent of the program’s alumni volunteering to support the ongoing success of the program.

By embedding leadership development within programs geared toward individuals who are often left behind by economic growth, programs like i.c. stars and Climb Hire are not only boosting the outcomes for participants but also extending their impact into under-resourced communities. They are proving that leadership development has value well beyond the C-suite — and that the ripple effects of leadership can benefit us all.

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