A New Path Forward To Leadership Development Success

HR MATTERS JACK BUCALOIN JANUARY, 2016, there were two publications on leadership that, when viewed together, offer a historically significant and pivotal opportunity for HR leaders and leadership gurus regarding all leadership development programs, but especially those designed for the upper-middle and top management levels.

The first one was a book excerpt by McKinsey & Company on author Jeffrey Pfeffer’s “Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature” in which he concludes that management books and commentaries often oversimplify and seldom provide useful guidance about the skills and behavior needed to get results and the second one was a Harvard Business Review article by Ron Carucci on “A 10-Year Study Reveals What Great Executives Know and Do” that summarized the results of interviews with over 2,700 executives in which four recurring patterns of executive skills were uncovered that distinguished the performance of exceptional executives.

Regarding Pfeffer’s book excerpt, he concludes that there are several problems that are inherent in the majority of leadership development programs. First, leadership is framed almost solely within the context of morality, such as authenticity, telling the truth, integrity, agreeableness, and so on. Second, framing leadership in that way “substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders confront”. Third, he states that placing “leaders and their actions into good and bad seriously oversimplifies a much more complex reality and continues to reinforce a problematic, trait-based and personality-centric view of human behavior.”

Regarding Carucci’s article, he concludes that there are four recurring patterns of skills that distinguished exceptional executives. First, know your industry – maintain a solid grasp of the ever-changing competitive context within which their business competes “at the intersection of insights into how their organization uniquely competes and makes money, and what is most relevant to the customers they serve.” Second, know the whole business – “understand how all the pieces of the organization fit together to create value and deliver results.” Third, they are great decision-makers – “… the ability to declare their views, engage others’ ideas, analyze data for insight while balancing instinct and analytics, weigh alternatives, own the final call, and communicate the decision clearly.” Fourth, they form deep, trusting relationships – “… with superiors, peers, and direct reports, studying and meeting the needs of key stakeholders.”

Now, here comes a hard truth that all HR executives and leadership gurus must REALISTICALLY DEAL WITH – as long as investors and the market hold the Boards and top management of any private or public company accountable for achieving certain financial and operating objectives over the short and long-term, the practical reality of today’s real business world is that business leaders must have BOTH technical/executive “hard” skills and leadership “soft” skills. From the line management perspective, they typically view these skills in a 75% to 25% mix, as illustrated in Carucci’s recurring patterns or skills.

Using Carucci’s patterns, here are examples of some typical hard and soft skills that might be appropriate for a CEO and top management executives in any company.

Know your industry – competitive financial analysis, competitive market share analysis, competitive product analysis, potential acquisition analysis within the current or new lines of business, competitive business value proposition analysis (technology, quality, innovativeness, customer care, total solution, financial strength, etc.) that your company brings to its customers and markets, and so on.
Know your whole business – analyzing your company’s functional (Sales, Marketing, IS, etc.) strengths and weaknesses, analyzing the company’s divisional and product strengths and weaknesses, understanding how the company or a division coordinates all of its functional efforts when it goes to market, strategic plan objectives, succession plan strengths, and so on.
Great decision-makers – utilizing the company’s industry and whole business strengths as the pragmatic foundation upon which company decision-making rests, analyzing the processes, traditional and analytical data used on major decisions regarding product design, marketing and pricing, distribution, purchasing, manufacturing, information systems, customer care, etc., providing a practical decision-making methodology that can be inculcated throughout the company, and so on.
Form deep-trusting relationships – providing sound coaching which recognizes that, at the executive level, such relationships evolve from the respect an executive receives for having consistently achieved outstanding business results in job after job through the use of sound management, strategic planning and leadership skills, emphasizing the collaboration with other executives to achieve business objectives that are for the greater good of the entire company, stressing that each executive should offer personal assistance to other executives whenever their organization possesses skills that could be helpful to others, getting to know other executives better on a personal level in an effort to improve their relationship, and so on.

The above hard and soft skills can be developed by having the HR and/or leadership experts working directly with a mix of outside consultants, graduate business school staff and internal experts. In doing so, the current skills can be intertwined with the latest and newest relevant skills and ideas on any particular subject, while the appropriate executives can join the outside experts to act as program designers, instructors, and conference leaders.

In addition to the above hard and soft skills listed for the CEO and top management executives, here’s a similar set of skills that were used in a 30 hour Leadership Development program for a group of 80 division and business unit presidents who were running businesses ranging from $25 to $400 million per annum in a $4 billion company. The program content revolved around the four key subjects of Financial Management, Strategic Product/Market Planning, Customer Executive Management Relations and Leadership. The program taught leadership in the practical context of improving Income and Cash Flow Statement performance, determining the next version of the products and finding new markets for them while maintaining the current ones, and interacting with the client’s top management to better understand their strategic goals and how our products and services could better help them to achieve those goals. The line executives who attended the program had an annual cash compensation range of $400K to $800K and they, along with the CEO and top management, evaluated it as a 4.5 on a 5.0 scale.

To fully understand this new path forward, we must step back and learn from the past. First, for many decades now, leadership development programs have concentrated almost exclusively on the subjects of interpersonal skills and basic leadership styles. Second, these programs have been developed devoid of the critical hard skills that the executives utilize to achieve the business objectives that are required of their position and for which the company is committed to its customers and stockholders to achieve. Third, CEOs and line executives, the ultimate customers for such programs, have consistently stated for many decades that such programs have failed in their eyes, and yet these programs continue to be developed as they have been in the past which are destined for almost certain failure. Fourth, the CEOs and line executives are saying that the programs offer little or no practical business value in relation to the amount of valuable line executive time they expend to attend them.

Therefore, the new path forward is to develop executive-level leadership development programs with an appropriate mix of 75% hard and 25% soft skills that reflect the practical reality of the executive’s real world in which he/she is held accountable for achieving various operating and financial business results. When such programs are designed to work within the executives’ real-life complexity, problems and business objectives for which they are accountable to the board and top management, there is a much greater chance for success.

Now, is developing such a program easy? No. Can it be done well and within a reasonable amount of cost? Absolutely. Does it require a new business-like mindset on the part of HR leaders? Absolutely. Therefore, the challenge for the Chief HR Officer is to direct his or her realigned staff resources AWAY from their comfort zone of interpersonal skills and basic leadership styles content and TOWARD the practical realities of the real-world business environment in which all line executives live. If accomplished, such programs will provide real BUSINESS VALUE to the company which is something HR is always striving to achieve.

In my opinion, Pfeffer confirms that concentrating on various singular morality subjects, like authenticity and integrity, substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the issues that executives face and continues to reinforce a problematic, trait-based and personality-centric view in leadership situations, while seldom providing practical guidance about the real mix of skills needed to get results. Meanwhile, Carucci offers some pragmatic findings of what subject content is really important for an executive to achieve exceptional performance.

At the beginning of this article, I indicated that these two publications represent a historically significant and pivotal opportunity for HR leaders. In sum, Pfeffer is telling us what subject content of leadership should NOT be emphasized, while Carucci is telling us what subject content SHOULD be emphasized for Leadership Development programs, especially for the upper/middle and upper management levels.

In light of the failed past history of such programs, it seems to me that Leadership Development programs at a CRITICAL CROSSROADS. If we continue down the same path we have had for decades, in the eyes of the CEO and line executives (our ultimate customers), the outcome is very likely to remain the same or worse, as such programs will receive less and less top management funding and attention because they offer little or no business value to the executive’s real world. Conversely, if current HR leaders view this moment in time as a pivotal one and seize this opportunity to try something new by designing the subject content for these programs that reflect the real world findings of these two publications, greater success is much more likely to occur.

This point in time may very well represent the Chief HR Officer’s last real opportunity to upgrade its leadership development programs so that they are providing REAL BUSINESS VALUE for the company’s management, employees, stockholders, and customers. If future leadership development programs continue to be developed without dealing with the hard skills and actual business objectives of the executives involved, they will continue to fail in the eyes of the CEO and line executives … the ultimate customer.


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.


  1. Jack, a couple of questions, please.1.) Could the results that indicate MORE hard skills be a statement that the executives would prefer more time spent on their comfort zone? 2.) Couldn’t the exposure to the “soft” skills be against the underpinning of their current success and be framed as unnecessary?-TomO

    • Thanks for commenting Thomas. Here are my responses: 1. The answer is typically no, because most leaders are being trained to develop NEW skills within their current or an upcoming job. 2. It could be. However, if the hard and soft skills are presented TOGETHER in the same program and applied to the practical context of the leader’s current job objectives, plans, challenges and risks, the use of the soft skills are typically enhanced, not diminished. Hope this helps, Jack

  2. Thank you for the flashback to the HBR “getting beyond the BS…” article. The leadership industry needs a massive paradigm shift. Building leaders and educating leaders are two distinct things, requiring different approaches.

    Leadership learning programs are often built to solve problems based on the available capabilities, interests, or histories of a firm. Most are built on:
    1. famous leadership authors, speakers… (print once, sell many empire)
    2. consultancies seeking to offer more services (stay relevant, keep billing)
    3. former leaders (ie. exec for hire, coach) exiting the C-level

    The military takes a random group of diverse (demographic and skills) people and builds teams which function under extreme VUCA conditions. Leadership learning does NONE of that. To build leaders requires an approach based on challenges, vulnerabilities, and experiential (lived under duress) conditions.

    The learn versus build issue needs more attention. The science is crystal clear.

    • Jon, couldn’t agree with you more that the leadership industry needs a massive paradigm shift. The fact that most CEOs see little or no BUSINESS VALUE in the training speaks volumes. As you have highlighted, my approach (like the military) is to teach the RIGHT MIX of hard and soft skills TOGETHER within the practical context of the executive’s current business objectives, strategies, challenges, plans and risks because that is the way they exist in their real life. Jack

  3. Jack, Thanks for pointing us to the future of leadership and the new path that we must take to truly prepare our leaders to be effective. I think the balance you suggest between hard and soft is right on. I have found that helping leaders collect, organize and evaluate current conditions is critical. I use the term Situational Triage to capture this process and hope that it gets applied at all levels of leadership from the C suite to the front line. While the scope may vary capturing today’s realities remains essential. You might be interested in the one minute video overview at

    • Thanks Mary. Let’s hope both our articles will inspire CHROs and leadership gurus to tackle the REAL business issues that CEOs face within the practical context of its leadership development training, rather than conducting such training devoid of such realities. If they don’t, CEOs and line execs will continue to believe that they get little or no BUSINESS VALUE from such training as they have for decades. Jack

  4. A lot of the leadership development programs I’ve seen (and ahem experienced) always has this strong foundation that was built by a single person’s perception on leadership. It was built on a system of approaches and experiences of that single person that had a specific personality that stood out. I don’t see anything wrong with that. After all you see this also in ideologies, sciences, and religions. It’s not bad. It’s just the danger is that people don’t take into consideration the differences in motivational needs each of us have when we are engaged in leadership development. Just like a certain two people can’t work together, a certain leadership program may not work with a certain group of people.

    • Thanks for commenting Chris. I guess my view is that leadership development programs are driven, first, by the development needs of the company’s business and its leadership position(s) and, secondly, by the individual needs of the leaders attending the program. The programs illustrated in my article were developed by the former and adjusted throughout implementation on the individual of the executives who attended.

      Best regards, Jack

      • That wasn’t he point I wanted to make. True, you need to define objectives and outcomes to gauge the level of investment, returns, and performance for leadership development. But to meet those objectives, I’m finding that a lot of leadership development programs have a foundation based on a single author or expert. There is a foundational book they written that is used to develop the program. If the program emphasizes change management, Kotter may be the source and how he works may be the foundation of the program. If the program emphasizes competitive advantage, then it may be the works of Porter. True, there may be other sources used for the development, but they generally are used to fill in some minor gaps. Because authors advocate a specific perspective supported by a specific working style, only those that advocate to those mindsets and styles get the most out of the program. For higher returns and impact for leadership development our firm (and a few others) integrates psychology, management science, ethical theory, and now today quite a bit of data-driven science.

        • Thanks for elaborating Chris. I think we are saying the same thing. During and while the development program hard and soft skills content is determined, the company’s management and the program leader have to determine the appropriate “foundation” that is emphasized and intertwined throughout the content. Valid point indeed.
          Interestingly, throughout our programs competitive advantage was the foundation whereas today, I am sure that innovative change would be very popular.


  5. Hi jack enjoyed the read. Very insightful information and actionable. I get the best results form one on one coaching sessions and strategy from team engagement, Thank you for pointing me to your article

    • Thanks Larry. In my coaching experience with executives ($300K and above), the line superiors really appreciated the inclusion of the hard skills as providing much more Business Value to them.

  6. Jack,
    Wonderful article. Thank you. One of the changes needed in leadership development is to work in tandem with the participants to apply their knowledge, implement an initiative and measures the results. Training that only focuses on classroom theory will not help leaders develop. Trainers must learn to help leaders apply their knowledge on the job. When that happens, trainers will impact the bottom line.

  7. I like the 75% hard skills and 25% soft skills partition, but more than these the term “hard skills”. In my profession have had lots of meetings with external training providers and soon I realized that no matter how well-known or top-ten the providers were, they only approached the soft side, which in my opinion, has more to do with everyone’s personality, character, morality and so on. I would choose individual coaching sessions instead, for every manager that needs a bit of polishing. But I haven’t seen yet external hard skills programs, but only internal. And they work magically, increase the sales, increase the company’s branding, employee’s confidence, loyalty, self-motivation and of course the sales bonuses. In my work I prefer to develop a customized internal business-oriented training curricula, ready to put in practice and easy to measure. Why can’t we measure soft skills training results, why don’t we see much of a result? These training programs are simply sterile, I agree, while they cost lots of money. Unless connected to present business needs and mixed with hard skills updating training. I have been asking other HR Managers from the market how and why do they pick those soft skills training programs year after year. They are all disappointed though, but they have to deliver a form of training and all they get is same and same old training modules, no matter how they are called this time or that they had been purchased abroad from training top players. Professional trainers that develop such programs are those that first of all, with the help of Pedagogy and Business Universities, need to complete their own studies in pedagogy, business and get an MBA one day, also earn lots of business experience. And only after that to be able to develop Leadership Training programs or other kind of training. We talk here about adult education, after all, and education and learning happen only if certain pedagogical principles are strictly respected and content-relevant for the trained manager. I suggest training professionals to take a look of “Didactica Magna” of Johan Amos Comenius who saw the modern education Technics of our future with the eyes of a sixteen century pedagogist. ( I also have seen great HR Project Managers that created their own employees’ academy, they got their company certified by local authorities, just as training companies are, to be able to deliver customized hard skills training and to sign professional certificates, based both on soft and hard skills, used on-the-job. I think this is a fantastic trend for a business. Thank you, Jack, for putting this subject on the table. There are few HR pioneers in the market doing the hard/soft skills mix. And CEO loves it.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Adina. As noted in my article, the only way to get the “hard skills” into your training is to conduct a business-oriented training needs analysis that uncovers the REAL BUSINESS NEEDS and collaborate with a group of internal and external sources to develop the training program content. It takes longer, but the value to the business and the HR function is tremendous. Trust me; as the Chairman and CEO of my company, along with many line execs, still talk positively about the program.







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