Vince Lombardi famously said, “leaders aren’t born, they are made.” Lombardi points to the effect of hard effort in building leadership skills, but organizations would be remiss to leave this process to chance. Without intention from organizations, we would miss out on many would-be leaders who lack the savvy to navigate the effort and learning on their own.

Lombardi’s perspective on leadership skills being developable is widely accepted, and organizations spend an estimated $356 billion worldwide annually on leadership training efforts. Yet as many as 75% of organizations say their leadership programs lack effectiveness. Why?

If leadership can be developed, why do so many organizations struggle to develop leaders? We at Vantage are often creating or delivering components of these programs. We have seen leadership development activities run the gamut for our clients—mentoring, coaching, assessment and feedback, structured on the job learning, workshops—and across these programs, there are some common pitfalls that inhibit effectiveness. We’ll review 3 of them below and offer some advice.

3 Reasons Your Leadership Program Isn’t Delivering Results


Problem 1: The program relies too heavily on classroom training.

In all of our work with leaders, no one has ever told us, “that training program was the most impactful development experience of my career”. And yet, classroom training is the most common form of development, beating out the use of other mediums by 22%.

It’s critical that leaders build and embed new habits to support them in long-lasting change, and this can’t always be accomplished in the classroom. Although learning concepts in the classroom may produce short-lived behavioral change,  participants often revert to old behaviors over time.

To make matters worse, some organizations host so many required classroom trainings that they breed a culture of “I’m only developing when I attend a course” mindset, and inadvertently undervalue learning that happens in the day-to-day. Classroom training becomes the easy trigger to pull any time employees are required to change, but not all change benefits from lectures and theories.

SOLUTION: Ask yourself, are the leadership problems we are trying to solve with training and development best served by taking leaders out of their day-to-day world? For certain knowledge and skills, like executive presence or basic leadership and management theories, your answer might be yes. But if you’re trying to get leaders to coach and develop employees, drive change, foster innovation, or make strategic decisions, the work itself provides a strong and meaningful training ground.

When we are engaged in these types of challenges we don’t always recognize that we are learning which might be why we resort to classroom training. If we don’t reflect on the experience, we may not fully recognize and be able to utilize what we have learned. This is why mentoring programs, job rotations, special assignments to projects, coaching engagements, and other learning activities benefit from guided reflection. Using on-the-job experiences to embed leadership learnings pays dividends by making learning meaningful and personalized.

Problem 2: The program lacks momentum.

Oftentimes, the owners of LD programs overestimate participants’ commitment early on and/or under-communicate expectations or process and filled-to-the-brim calendars get in the way of meaningful follow up. Because of timing, lags between activities, and unclear expectations for ongoing development after scheduled events, organizations fail to capitalize on the momentum and energy generated through developmental activities.

The result is learning only happens in bursts that are separated in time and require reminding or re-engaging learners at the outset of each event. Think of the American school year, where teachers spend significant time in the fall reviewing and reminding students of what they learned the previous year—this occurs because the learning isn’t being applied in the day-to-day between scheduled developmental events.

Losing momentum means that feedback on learned behaviors is less than effective. Feedback is most impactful when it is provided frequently and just-in-time, when behaviors occur. Immediacy of feedback is not just best practice, it is becoming the expectation. Consider our life in the digital world, where with the click of a button you can have anything from a bell pepper to a child’s birthday gift delivered to you in under 2 hours.

As Millennials – dubbed “digital natives” because they grew up in a digital world- become leaders, they’ll expect their developmental activities to align in time with their leadership needs (i.e., a coach available to work through an immediate problem or role play a conversation with employees about an emergent issue). Waiting until the next workshop or waiting weeks for a follow up discussion with a coach makes the engagement less meaningful—learning must move at the speed of business.

SOLUTION: First, you must be realistic about people’s time. Communicating frequently and with transparency all of the required aspects of a leadership development program and scheduling activities in advance can help alleviate some of the calendar pressure that stalls momentum. Next, you must ensure executive sponsorship for the program, or even activities that are pre-planned and well-communicated will get pushed to the back burner or rescheduled in favor of attacking fire drills or other emergent issues.

If both these conditions are satisfied and you’re still losing momentum between learning events, consider other ways to engage leaders in real time. Gamification is a growing option for maintaining momentum—leveraging principles of motivation to engage leaders in challenges and competitions that reward participants for creating value for your business. Verizon, Samsung, and USA Network have seen success with social gamification of promotions to consumers, and organizations like Walmart and Qualcomm utilize gaming principles to embed training and increase collaboration amongst employees.

If your LD budget doesn’t include large-scale technological developments, there are many apps that engage people daily to meet their goals that could be applied to a leadership forum. One of our favorites is LeaderAmp, a coaching tool that facilitates communication and accountability between coaches and coachees between sessions. LeaderAmp allows for coachees to assess their developmental readiness, request feedback from colleagues, receive reminders and suggestions for how to engage in their development day by day, and journal about their experiences.

Problem 3: Methods for measuring the program’s success are incomplete.

In my experience, measuring success is often the program component on the chopping block when budgets get tight, and it’s hard to consider a program effective if you can’t prove it is.  Psychological theory suggests training evaluations can occur on 4 levels: reactions, learnings, behaviors, and results. If your organization evaluates leadership development by asking program participants to rate its effectiveness, you’re only focusing on participants’ reactions to the experience (and further, if leadership is developed through hard work and effort, these experiences won’t always be pleasant). Consider the old saying, “what gets measured gets done”. If you want your leadership development program to change leadership behaviors and demonstrate ROI, you should be measuring behaviors and results.

SOLUTION: Following training, measure the use of behaviors on the job rather than how participants feel about the experience. A follow-up 360-feedback provides a holistic view of leaders and can show whether they are applying behaviors learned in their developmental process to their day-to-day. Additionally, consider what organizational metrics you’d expect the program’s success to improve—maybe it’s employee engagement, retention, sales, or market share. Linking behaviors to results can be costly, time consuming, and difficult. But with the right expertise and established executive sponsorship, you can make it a reality.

Of course, there are many ways to address any of these issues described above; we offer some tips that align with best practices and our experiences with successful leadership development programs, but there are others. What have you done to reinvigorate LD programs that fell into the above traps? What problems have you experienced with leadership development programs in your organization? Have you created or participated in a program that you found particularly effective? Share your experiences in the comments.

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