Leadership Development Down The Drain

Why Leadership Development Initiatives Fail

Globally, it is estimated that we waste in excess of 250 billion dollars each year on leadership training... Why is this, and what can we do about it?

I must admit, when I first started doing the research for this article, I was somewhat skeptical about the numbers. Actually, I wasn't skeptical, I just didn't want to admit that I have also contributed to — as Harvard Business Review puts it — 'the great training robbery'.

So what is the cause of this great heist? The good news is that no person, function or industry is to blame for wasting money on leadership training, as there are a host of different factors that affect training outcomes.

In this article we will explore the common causes behind leadership development initiatives that fail.


Out with Box Ticking. In with Outcomes Driven.

How serious are they and what do they want to achieve? These are the two most important questions that we all need to answer to before taking on any new customer or starting any new learning initiative. Why is this you ask? Simply put, out ability to impact change will be greatly hindered when the organisation is primarily focussed on ticking a box in the training column.

Training for the sake of training is a common mistake made by many!


Out with Silo Learning. In with 70:20:10.

The 70:20:10 model is as relevant today as it was back in the 80's... Individuals obtain 70 percent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal education.

Leadership development cannot exist in a silo, and must evolve from the classroom in order to be effective. Action learning sets, pre and post workshop tasks, feedback from managers, reports and peers, digital learning and coaching all have a role to play.

"Whatever is learned must be put into action and reflected on!"


Out with Training. In with Learning

One of the biggest causes of ineffective leadership training is our focus on the concept of training. Herein lies the problem, as training is the process of imparting information and knowledge in a manner that instructs the trainee. We need to focus on learning, which is the process of absorbing knowledge and information so that it can be applied under a variety of contexts.

You can train someone to do something - but that doesn't mean they have learned how to do it, or that there has been any change in behaviour. This is one of the reasons why many lifelong learning initiatives fail.

Training also has a very different connotation from learning. Training suggests that you will be trained (have knowledge and information forced upon you). Learning suggest that you will learn (decide why, how and when to apply the knowledge and information). If you are a trainee it suggests that you are a beginner. If you are a learner it suggests that you are developing.


Out with Training Courses. In with Learning Journeys.

This 5-day Leadership Training course provides those in leadership positions with the knowledge and skills to lead and inspire others... I'm sure we have all read course descriptions like this before, and I'm sure that we have all attended a course with a similar description. How many of us have actually changed behaviour as a result of attending an course like this, as apposed to reverting to our old ways of doing things?

“I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.” 1957,  The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew

Training courses are typically run over a short period of time, are not based around the business, and do not require you to apply what you have learned. Conversely, a well designed and delivered learning journey is run over a longer period of time, is based around the business, and requires you to learn, practice, reflect and apply what you have learned.

Properly designed learning journeys employ a wide variety of learning strategies and delivery mechanisms to enhance knowledge transfer and encourage behavioral change. They also mean more to the learner!


Out with Management Complacency. In with Management Commitment.

Having run numerous leadership development programs over the years, there is one thing I know for certain... If the learners manager is not involved then the chance of the learner adopting what they have learned is greatly reduced.

A leaders job is to develop other leaders... Send your leaders of the future to attend a course and hoping they will improve is not enough. Interrupting the learning with work-related issues reduces the importance of learning. Not making the time to discuss what has been learned also reduces the importance of learning.

Leaders have to be 100% committed to the learning and play an active role in ensuring that what gets learned gets applied. With this in mind, leaders and learners should define deliverables at the beginning of any learning journey. The leader should have regular check-ins with both the learner and the facilitator to ensure that progress is being made. The leader should be involved in providing feedback to the learner.


Out with Off The Shelf. In with 100% Customised & Real.

In this case study we are going to examine J.C. Penney's "Fair and Square" Pricing Strategy... I'm sure we have all attended a course with a really nice case study about a completely un-related business, and whilst it was a really good case study, it doesn't really help us with our own problems.

"If it cannot be instantly applied. It should not be taught!"

The key problem with off-the-shelf courses or learning journeys that are not customised is that they use business models, case studies or role play scenarios that are not specific to the business. The result of this is that learned find it difficult to relate to what has been learned.


Out with Happy Sheets. In with Real Measurements.

The trainers are really effective, they averaged 5.2 on the 6 point feedback scale... This a comment that I'm sure you have heard as many times as me.

Sorry to break it to you, but happy sheets are a measure of how learners enjoyed and perceived the effectiveness of the learning. Kirkpatrick's Level 1 & 2 of learning.

If you are not measuring how the learner behaved before and after, and the impact the learning had on them and the organisation, then you are not really measuring whether the learning was effective.



As you can see, there are a host of different factors that are responsible for 'the great training robbery'. In my next article I will share 10 tips to improving the effectiveness of your leadership development initiatives.