The Rubber Band Effect

When you stretch a rubber band out and let it go, it snaps back to almost its original shape. The same can apply to leadership and executive development work. One of the concerns I hear most often is about the rubber band effect. “We send people to leadership development events and they come back really excited. But it is hard to see the impact months later. I cannot send them every month! How do we make these investments in a way that shows sustained results?”

Over the past year, I have been deeply involved in this question as I focused on mitigating the rubber band effect for clients. Here are the three key principals I believe to be most important:

  • Critical mass. Executive coaching or other leadership development work for an individual has benefit. But that benefit is limited to the area of the business that the executive manages. So unless the executive involved is a senior leader, improvements in performance are not extended to the entire organization.

If you are looking for broad change, significant increases in performance, a reinvention of organizational culture or other major change, you will have to involve enough of the right people at the right level to ensure that the new point of view can sustain itself. That means either the work is focused on senior executives or a team with sufficient span to impact the organization — often both. Executive development work is most effective with leadership teams, program teams or others who are accountable for business outcomes. The team becomes self-sustaining and therefore delivers more value than a single individual who, if not well placed, simply becomes a frustrated voice in the wind.

  • Teamwork instead of team building. A team-building event (ropes course, fire walk, wilderness trek, leadership training, etc.) is like revving up a powerful engine. All that horsepower requires a transmission to connect it to actual work. Often the transmission never gets into gear. Perhaps the best description of the better solution comes from Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith in “The Wisdom of Teams”: “The hunger for performance is far more important to team success than team building exercises.”

Doing the actual work of the team in a new and more effective way has more impact than team building for its own sake. In fact, the most effective team building is a facilitated or coached intensive work event that gives the team the experience of a new way to engage with each other while completing real work. This approach has an added economic advantage. Off-sites are often considered expensive because of the time away from work. If the team is engaging in the work of the team, then less time is lost to theory.

  • Development work is a process, not an event. High-impact events that focus on real work are effective at raising energy and getting a kick-start on any new process or change. The challenge then becomes how to sustain what was only started off-site long enough for it to truly take root — especially since most office environments are not fertile ground for new behavior (fertilizer jokes aside).

Continued reinforcement for accountability and refinement of group and individual behaviors is critical to protecting the new point of view. Change takes time. Typically, a support structure is needed for at least six months and sometimes as long as two years. Extended coaching for individuals and teams, smaller retreats, formalized reinforcement and dedicated offices for teams all help create an environment that negates the rubber band effect. Events are high-impact, but a sustaining structure is key to getting full value from their power.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, September 5, 2005.