Why Leadership Development Programs Fail

How To Make Change Happen

According to Forbes, only 14% of CEOs feel that they have the leadership talent they need to drive their business strategies. Deloitte reports in its 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report that 80% of companies believe leadership development is a high priority. And yet some experts believe that 80% of the time these programs fail to have the desired impact. When considering the question, why leadership development programs fail, there are consistent and reliable answers to be found across a large body of experts. Many of these experts point to weak or missing change management protocols. Those missing protocols include:

  1. clearly defined learning objectives that link to desired behavioral changes.
  2. front-end communication and messaging from senior leaders and stakeholders.
  3. identification and measurement of leading and lagging success indicators.

All three reasons are valid and critical considerations when implementing a talent development initiative. In this article, the reason and solution to why leadership development programs fail will focus on another commonly held belief among the experts: that learning is not sufficiently blended to provide a variety of support, tools, coaching, and reinforcement experiences. A blended development strategy should take place before, during, and after a learning event. This concept is key because people do not often change because of a single event. Change is integrated into habits and mindsets because of a series of experiences over a period of time.

I notice that organizations seem to have a love-hate relationship with talent development. On one hand, they realize the critical importance as noted above to educate, enlighten and engage their workforce. On the other hand, when the rolling waves of revenue get turbulent, talent development dollars are often the first budget items thrown overboard. Sometimes, to stretch professional development dollars, organizations will choose one approach over another, rather than a combination of tactics to enhance sustainability. When leadership development is seen as individual development alone there may not be the necessary support to ensure sustainability. Organizations that see leadership development as part of a systemic change effort are better equipped to reap the benefits.

The simple truth is that without effective coaching reinforcement, training initiatives are deeply hindered. Research from Ventana shows that the ROI on sales training quadruples from 22% to 88% when reinforced by in-field coaching and reinforcement.

The Centre for Management and Organizational Effectiveness arrived at almost identical results. In their research, they found that productivity increases 23% from training alone. However, a combination of training and coaching reinforcement led to an 88% increase in productivity.

Once a learning event has been completed and employees return to their roles, specific performance support activities must be implemented, or any knowledge or skill acquired is in severe jeopardy of not transferring to the workplace. In fact, Sales Performance International suggests that participants in sales training forget half of what is taught within five weeks. According to Dr. Art Kohn, a corporate training consultant and cognitive science expert, it is even worse than that! Dr. Kohn believes that people forget an average of 70% of new information within 24 hours. One-way organizations can minimize the loss of learning, is through consistent reinforcement activities for six to eight weeks following a learning event to improve the odds that new behaviors become integrated habits.

Organizations are also mitigating the risk of failed initiatives with strategies like microlearning. “Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reportedly found that microlearning makes the transfer of knowledge from the classroom to the job 17% more efficient.” This strategy gives small, bite-size pieces of learning in ways that are easy to access, digest and integrate.

This writing started with the question, why do leadership development programs fail but the real question is how can you avoid squandering your talent development budget? Again, and in addition to strong change management protocols, below are several methods that can be blended to get the most bang for your buck following the completion of a training event or workshop.

Ways to Avoid Squandering the Talent Development Budget

Individual Coaching: Scheduling post-course coaching sessions for a determined period, which include agreed-upon success measures, is one of the most effective (and sometimes most costly) ways to reinforce learning. Through dedicated coaching sessions, learners focus on their new knowledge or skills, determine specific action plans in which to apply the new knowledge or skills, set success measures upon which they will evaluate the effectiveness of their action plans, and reflect on what worked and what could improve following their strategy implementations. A different approach is Curbside Coaching, the act of coaching “in the moment”, which typically accompanies a live observation and involves immediate, event-specific feedback.

Follow-up Workgroup: Gathering a follow-up workgroup which includes all the learners from a specific learning initiative is a great way to get the most bang for your reinforcement buck. Like individual coaching, sessions are scheduled in advance for a set period, involving agreed-upon success measures and incorporating action plans and individual accountability. These group sessions have the added bonuses of the group’s experiences, successes, and failures to share with its members regarding the knowledge or skills addressed in the initial core learning solution. These group coaching sessions are typically delivered virtually.

Assignments: This post-course support activity gives learners an opportunity to apply their new knowledge or skills in controlled, observable ways. Some assignments, for technical skills, can be straight-forward tests to illustrate knowledge. Soft-skill assignments often encourage real-life interactions and discussions about experiences. Regardless of the approach, assignments need to focus on reinforcement and development, not just cold, academic data collection. Use assignments as a starting place for discussion, not a summary of employee effectiveness.

Blended Approach: Using a thoughtful blend of the strategies outlined above is a common approach of the most successful organizations. Since not every company is the same, it is important to evaluate the best method, success measures, and timeframe in which to execute the best reinforcement campaign.
Xponents offers a robust reinforcement package called Skill Reinforcement Pods which blends group coaching, communities of practice, learning assignments, and interactive group dialogues in a secured, online environment. These blended approaches can be tailored to meet your organizations unique needs.

Gleeson, B. (December 2, 2019). 5 reasons leadership development programs fail. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2019/12/02/5-reasons-leadership-development-programs-fail/?sh=1d829b273ca3

Guitierrez, K. (September 27, 2018). Numbers don’t lie why bite sized learning is better for your learners and you too. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/numbers-dont-lie-why-bite-sized-learning-is-better-for-your-learners-and-you-too

HRZone.com.(May 3, 2019). Why leadership development programmes fail. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.hrzone.com/community/blogs/sineadquinn/why-leadership-development-programmes-fail

Organizational Performance

Organizational performance is closely linked to employee engagement. Research indicates that the level of connection and trust that exists between an employee and their manager plays a significant role on workplace satisfaction and engagement. Relationships that operate with transparency, respect, open-mindedness, and with clarity about goals and roles tend to be more successful. Trust is built by making and keeping commitments.

Learn How to Build Trust!

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