Why leadership development doesn’t work (and how to make sure it does)

by Vicki Haverson

In a recent survey by Gartner, more than 800 HR leaders across 60 countries and all major industries identified leader and manager effectiveness as their biggest priority for 2023.

Employee engagement remains one of the biggest threats to organisations, affecting outcomes including productivity, profitability, customer service and safety, well-being and happiness. And with managers being directly responsible for 70% of the variance in employee engagement, it’s easy to see why their development is a priority.

Yet despite the billions spent on the training and development every year across the world, it’s not always leading to results. According to research by a UK business school only 7% of senior managers think their organisations are developing global leaders effectively. Whilst 83% of organisations’ believe it’s an important priority, only 5% are doing something about it.

We’ve identified five of the most common reasons leadership development doesn’t work and how to overcome them, so you can get the most from your investment.

1.Taking a one and done approach

Some organisations choose to invest in one off training days or workshops as a development solution. With budgets squeezed, this can seem like the best and easiest option – you identify a problem or a need, organise the training or workshop and the box is ticked. Except 90% of the investment is lost within 7 days as participants forget what they’ve learnt.

One off training interventions or workshops ignore the fact that people develop new behaviours and habits over time, not over a day. A programme that is developed with stakeholders and participants that provides a clear learning journey with multiple experiences over a number of months, delivers a much better return on investment with measurable impacts. When the learning is spaced individuals are able to imbed the learning back into their workplaces through practice and application.

Leadership in itself is an ongoing practice that needs continuous development, otherwise you are going backwards. Leaders need the opportunity to stretch, reflect, and gather new insights to support them in achieving results for them, their teams and their organisations.

2. It’s too theoretical

Any development needs to be situationally specific and based on the challenges being faced right now. This means it need to be constantly changing to reflect the dynamics of the external environment the organisation and its wider stakeholders.

Leadership development programs often fail when they are based on ‘off the shelf’ content or on academic theories and models. Learners might not understand how to apply these to the situations and challenges they are facing in their workplaces and out in the world.

When the development is about delivering content and information, rather than exploring their current reality it won’t be retained or lead to behaviour change.

A development programme underpinned with a coaching rather than ‘telling’ approach using support and challenge as part of the learning journey, helps participants develop reflective practice as part of their learning and application.

With this approach there is an understanding that the work on the programme is done in partnership with the agenda that life is setting. Rather than being in service of the content, it’s in service of the individuals and their stakeholders – those they lead now, those they will lead in the future, the organisation and the wider stakeholders – who all need to have a voice in the room.

3. It doesn’t get to the root cause of behaviour

Becoming a more effective leader involves changing behaviour, adjusting mindsets and letting go of limiting beliefs, which is not always easy as it means there will be discomfort. Because there is no growth in comfort or comfort in growth.

Many programmes can avoid taking the time to dig deep into these areas because it can feel uncomfortable and be met with resistance or defensiveness. Without this, it’s only the symptoms being treated rather than the root causes, which means you are only ever papering over the cracks.
Unless a safe space is created for individuals to be supported and stretched to pause and reflect and explore their thoughts, feelings, assumptions, values and beliefs it is difficult to change behaviour. Without it behaviour change is unlikely to stick.

4. Lack of support or buy-in

Many programs fail because there is a lack of engagement and support for development efforts back in the organisation. Motivated learners want the opportunity to share what they have learned, discuss ways to make changes and get the support and feedback they need to do it.

Unless senior executives see developing and coaching leaders as an important part of their job and model the behaviours, it won’t work. It can leave employees feeling cynical about their organisation and senior leadership, leading them to quickly default to their old behaviours.

Research by Harvard Business Review showed that learning gains the most traction when development efforts are championed by senior leaders because it motivates people to learn and change. It also creates the conditions within which they would apply what they learned and make immediate improvements in individual and organisational effectiveness. They were also able to put in place systems that helped to sustain their learning share it with others.

In our experience, the individuals who achieve the best results from development programmes are proactively supported by their own line manager or a mentor within their organisation. When there isn’t support or recognition of the time investment into the programme, individuals struggle to be fully committed to participate and practice.

Development needs to be able to take place ‘in the flow’ of work and not be something that sits outside of it as an isolated event.

5. Not measuring results

To know what you are measuring, you need to know the outcome you are looking for. At the outset being clear on a small number of target behaviours that will make the most significant difference to performance, rather than a long list of competencies. And then tracking and measuring these at key stages, in the same way as any other business programme.

Outcomes and metrics might include increases in employee engagement, team productivity, sales revenue, retention, customer satisfaction, employee wellbeing and happiness.  Exploring the tools available to measure observable behaviour change, for example 360 assessments, pulse surveys and employee engagement methods.

Continuing to measure the ongoing learning application after the programme has finished and tracking the career journey of participants is another way. For example, how many were appointed to more senior roles one to two years after the program? How many left the company? How does this compare to those who hadn’t been through a leadership development programme?

Importantly, you don’t get to the heart of organisational culture from people filling out surveys and questionnaires. The learning comes from looking at the patterns and themes that are emerging, whilst maintaining confidentiality, to understand what is really happening. This can be important for executive teams in understanding what is going to support or get in the way of what they are trying to achieve strategically.

The good news is organisations can increase the success of their leadership development efforts and get the return on investment they are looking for by being clear on a small number of target behaviours; measuring results; championing development at a senior level; understanding the root causes of behaviour; taking a coaching rather than theoretical approach; and investing in a development journey.