4 ways to ensure your leadership development programs are not a complete waste of everyone’s time

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“We have done a series of 360 debriefs and ran one to one coaching sessions but don’t seem to be getting any traction in developing our leaders. Can you help”?

This recent conversation was with the Head of Talent in an international infrastructure business and of course his despair is not unusual.

According to a 2012 report issued by Bersin and Deloies over $14bn per year is spent on leadership development programs in the US alone. Yet Matthew Gitcham from Ashridge Business School in the UK found only 7% of organisational leaders believed their organisations were adequately developing them for future leadership roles and responsibilities.

This appears to be particularly true when related to those leading change programs and developing high performing cultures. A recent report suggests up to 85% of organisational change programs fail. Given the investment in leadership development this is a damning statistic of leaders ability to do what they are paid to do. So why do so many companies invest in programs that seemingly do not deliver the results they seek?

McKinsey’s, in a 2014 report, suggest there are 4 main reasons these programs fail to deliver the intended results.

  1. The organisation failed to set the context for the development programs at the outset i.e. the development was happening in isolation to the organisation and its needs.
  1. The important activity of active reflection, which is often taught in leadership development programs, was ‘decoupled’ from the real work being done. This in effect means leaders were taking part in reflections but not reflecting on how impactful they were as leaders and therefore not developing in accordance to the organisation’s needs.
  1. Programs under estimated the importance of leader’s mindsets and how each leader actively contributed to the organisational culture. The more each leader understands their personal impact the more the culture can be shaped towards higher performance.
  1. Programs had no pre or post measurements. Therefore these they become episodic events rather than a strategic on going intervention towards a desired outcome.


What can organisations do to ensure they are getting results from their leadership development programs?

Ensure the leadership team members are being developed.

Leadership teams set the pace for the overall organisational development. If the leadership team and its members are not developing, growing and learning then the organisation will accordingly slow down. Effective leadership outperforms ineffective leadership over time, so it worth investing in developing the most senior leaders in the organisation, particularly during tough trading conditions. Of course this feels paradoxical in nature at the time.

Align the content to underpin the strategic plans for the organisation.

Leadership development programs need to be aligned to the development to the strategic needs of the organisation in order to have a chance of getting best value from the time spent on development. When learning is made more real, i.e. focused on the optimal execution of the organisation strategy, the participants are more engaged and have a higher chance of actually applying their learning. If the strategy calls for increased financial controls and internal operational efficiencies then leader development may be best aligned to programs that highlight lean sigma, process management type programs. However if increased revenue is a core part of the strategy then having programs focusing on sale forces effectiveness, key account management, customer retention, net promoter scoring and rapid deployment of market feedback are probably best suited as development areas.

“Effective leadership outperforms ineffective leadership over time, so it worth investing in developing the most senior leaders in the organisation, particularly during tough trading conditions. Of course this feels paradoxical in nature at the time.”

Ensure the content and delivery of the programs are practical in nature.

Going on a development program that is not tailored to the broad environment the organisation finds itself in is likely to become a theoretical exercise rather than a practical opportunity to learn. One of the most common criticisms of development programs are…“they were interesting but I don’t know what to do with the learning..” If the participants cannot apply the learning the day after returning to the office, they most likely never will.

Develop skills in ‘leadership conversational intelligence’

Learning to communicate effectively means more than learning ‘crucial conversations’ type phrases. It involves the ability and knowledge to move dialogue from defensive patterns to generative and reflective dialogues. Understanding what conversations need to be had, how to have them and how best to prepare for them is a key leadership development need. Most humans avoid robust deep conversations at a personal level yet quality organisations are built on quality conversations.

How do your leadership development programs/experiences stack up against this criteria?
Are your leaders able to deliver what the organisation needs of them?

If you would like to discuss how your leaders can be developed effectively please contact us.