Forget Leadership Training: Focus on Leadership Development

Corporations across the globe are no stranger to leadership training programs. By this I refer to training workshops and educational courses that span anywhere from one to three days. Roughly $160 billion is spent in leadership training and education alone in the US, and in 2015 the global spend was over $356 billion. Based on anecdotal evidence, less than 10% of executives believe the programs brought significant improvements on overall leadership qualities.

Potentially over $300 billion per year is wasted on leadership training!

It's not for the reasons you would expect

It’s not because the training programs themselves do not target critical areas of leadership. In fact, most training programs are heavily rooted in theoretical practices that are backed by years of academic research.

It’s not because there weren’t any feedback systems in place either. A micro-electronic products division invested in a leadership training program that incorporated pre-post training surveys and found significant attitude change and real-time behavioral changes. But a couple years later, employees stated that there were little changes after the program. Importantly, they found it impossible to apply the lessons due to organizational challenges (e.g., conflicting environment and a lack of a clear strategy and vision).

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the training programs themselves, but rather the idea of a training program delivering sustainable change and growth in leadership.

Why doesn’t learning lead to application?

A study back in the 1980’s showed that training programs do not facilitate change. The problem lies in the application. The most outstanding students in those programs, with all their motivations and new knowledge could not implement the changes when they returned to their business units. Alumni of such training programs simply reverted to their old ways and stuck to what they were used to in their organizational environment.

Leadership theories often do not reflect directly in most organizations

Most leadership training focuses on key qualities of being a good leader (in general). What is often not included, is “What makes a good leader in YOUR organization?”. An organization isn’t a single datapoint – to move in a specific direction, you can’t just apply concepts that target the organization as a whole. Rather, there is a need to recognize the individual moving parts of the organization – the people, the different roles and responsibilities, the leadership culture. If a leadership training program doesn’t take any of that into consideration, it is potentially set up to fail from the beginning.

Outside of individual control

A common misconception is that alumni of the training programs and courses simply do not put in the extra effort to implement what they’ve learnt. But, research by Harvard Business School indicates that organizations need external setups in place in order to grow individuals and develop their leadership qualities. For sustainable change to occur, the organization itself must be proactive and effortful in their approach.

Common roadblocks that are detrimental to change and improve overall effectiveness and leadership qualities in the organizations are:

  1. Lack of clear objectives, direction, and vision.
  2. Executive team lacking self-awareness and thus remains rigid in their leadership journey.
  3. Employees do not feel comfortable providing upwards feedback in fear of unfair retribution

When you combine the reasons mentioned above, you get a leadership training program that goes like this:

  1. Spend a significant amount of money and time to increase leadership knowledge.
  2. Real-time and immediate feedback indicating the effectiveness of training.
  3. Participants are excited to implement their new learnings.
  4. Encounter aforementioned roadblocks
  5. Executive team indicates a lack of improvement a year down the line and requests for another training program to be conducted.
  6. Repeat from Step 1.

How is leadership development different?

The key difference between leadership development and leadership training lies in 2 key concepts:

  1. Focus
  2. Duration

Step 1: Focus

There needs to be a clear definition for leadership that is specific to the organization. This starts with the strategic direction of the business, its culture and values. Subsequently, what are the leadership qualities that are critical to achieving the organization’s goals. Typically, an anonymous feedback system is useful in this step to diagnose the strengths and development areas of each member of the leadership team. It’s important to also include the leadership team’s feedback on their own behavior. Now, with the data in hand, it’s about engaging in an effective leadership coach that engages with each individual in the leadership team to first develop an action plan and implement the changes across time.

Step 2: Duration

This is critical for leadership development – it’s a continuous journey. It doesn’t stop at the first iteration of Step 1: Focus. Organizational changes occur all the time – strategy, team, people, etc. Thus, it’s important to periodically go through Step 1 and refocus the development plan for each individual. Old development areas could now be a strength, and new development areas could arise. We’d recommend a check-in every 6-12 months and ensure that the focus is aligned.

What’s your organization doing? Training or Development?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I know the leadership behaviors (e.g., conflict resolution, people management) that are needed to succeed in my role?
  2. What are some development areas that I need to work on?
  3. Do I have an on-going leadership coach that helps me learn on the job?
  4. Do I receive timely feedback from those around me?

If you’ve answered no to any of the above, chances are your organization is not putting enough effort into leadership development.