It is time to re-think leadership development programs
HR Business Partner

Written by Marnie Brokenshire

June 18, 2022

Globally its a $400 billion dollar industry and estimated to grow 7-10% in the next 3 years.  We know the spend but there is very little research on the return. 

There are countless innovations – gamification being the biggest, an effort to change it up and make it work better.  E-learning and micro learning has been around a long time – effective to some degree but only at an individual level.  So despite the need and innovation, more often than not, leadership training doesn’t work – not the way it’s intended.  Here’s our thoughts on why.

Tick the Box

Developing leadership capability requires intent that is embedded in the strategy of the business.  It can’t be a tick the box exercise – training for training’s sake. Picking something “off the shelf” or following a trend will not yield results. Whilst there is an onus on businesses to develop their leaders, it should never be because “it’s the thing to do”, you need to know why you are doing it, and how the solution is going to deliver a result, before you start.

Lack of Trust Culture

Maximising leadership training grounded in EQ competencies, must be able to be supported by the culture and the culture needs to be one of high trust where leaders can apply learning and new behaviour in a trust environment that supports change, mistakes and authenticity (read our article on trust here).

The Wrong Training

One size does not fit all.  Despite the innovations, the actual content is still largely “off the shelf”. Training content needs to be customised and delivered in the context of the business environment, lifecycle, strategy, and then individualised to the different competency needs of the individual.  Great facilitators who are agile can do this all in a session but it requires non templated training.  Gamification is taking off because no one wants to sit in a room and stare at wordy powerpoint slides (which should never have been a thing).

Lack of an Holistic Learning Framework

Here’s the key.  We know for a fact that 70% of what we learn, we learn by doing, on the job.  If the “technical” training doesn’t provide ways and means to take it back to the job, the skills will not be practiced and perfected, just forgotten.  The learning framework needs to incorporate the 70/20/10 learning model. 

Re-think leadership development programs
Take this example:

One of our consultants, a very accomplished leader and excellent trainer, had been working with a large corporate. Her content customised, her delivery agile and individualised. She’d delivered several workshops targeting specific EQ competencies and had incorporated diagnostic tools. Lots of insight, positive feedback, action plans.

In a meeting to discuss the next phase of the training, the Head of HR stated that the business wanted to continue BUT despite the investment, not much had changed. The same problems still existed. The leadership team were still dysfunctional and overly competitive with each other.

Initially, we were complexed. Based on the program they had undergone, this shouldn’t be the case. There should have been change. So we investigated and the problem soon became obvious. The agreement to the program from the MD and Senior Management team (who hadn’t participated and who themselves were dysfunctional with each other), was a tick the box exercise – the thinking was “we should because we have to”, not because they were really invested in realising the value of the outcomes. So when the leaders set about trying to operate in a more constructive way, using the learning and the EQ insights, it was too hard, so they reverted to what worked – role modelling the bosses and working within the culture norms.

The only way to “survive” was to use the “accepted behaviour” not the “new behaviour”, so nothing changed.

The idea of implementing a leadership development program was a good one as a ticking the box exercise, it wasn’t going to work. (We will share in a separate article how we fixed this problem).

“There is another common reason training doesn’t work – it’s just crap training!”

There is another common reason training doesn’t work – it’s just crap training!  Same old concepts, same old theories, death by powerpoint. 

I see many pics on LinkedIn with training consultants and their pupils sitting around boardroom tables, powerpoint slides on the screen, and I think ‘please no’!  This may be unfair, I’m sure people are learning something in these situations, particularly if the approach is wrapped up in EQ competencies, lived experiences and translated into a context that creates meaningful ways for people to do things differently, however, I do wonder about the ROI.

Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, Derek Schrader, wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2016, that posed a series of questions you should ask to assess your investment in leadership training. The commentary on cynisicm that can build when training does not work, and the integral role of HR is worth a read.

Why you should still invest in leadership training…

There is a need to continue to challenge leadership thinking and behaviour because it’s a craft that requires constant assessment and practice – its lifelong learning.

Your high potentials and high performers are worth the investment and will be the key to your success.

There is real value in a unified understanding and language and this collective power can be a force to be reckoned with.  If you get a team on a page, they can become a powerful force that can impact the culture, drive trust and confidence and make positive change despite a lack of strategy or trust in culture.  This is the approach we used to fix the problem in the example above.

The value of effective leadership cannot be underestimated and we should never give up.  The cost of ineffective leadership is unsustainable.  The cost of investing in the right training, delivered in the right way, can have a measurable ROI.

The best outcomes will be derived if you:

  • Have a commitment from the top and a thoughtful, considered strategy to support the development agenda, and if you don’t have that, then incorporate this gap into the training.

  • Are prepared to implement a program of change that supports the training once its underway – this doesn’t have to be wholesale change,  we recommend some small tweaks that will help participants put the learning into action.

  • Ensure the training is customised and contextualised to your environment – written specifically for your business and your strategy, based on EQ competencies, and includes strategies for on the job action.

Visit our sister company providing culture and leadership solutions, based on our own adaptive models built around emotional intelligence competencies – click here.

As practitioners with years of in-house Corporate experience, we know the role of HR is hard, we also know that becoming strategic, influential and value add is a journey supported by mentoring. This is why we offer people strategy workshops and HR masterclasses facilitated by Marnie Brokenshire (30+ years corporate HR, 15 at C-Suite), and Nicole Mathers (10+ years corporate HR, 5 at senior management).  Reach out to see how we can support you.

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