Leadership Development Research Points to Key Benefits

Research attests that effective leadership development drives performance, making a lasting impact on the biggest challenges that organizations face.

But only when it’s done right.

Studies from Bersin by Deloitte, the Conference Board, and our own global research group show that substantial investments in leadership development drive performance.

Leadership Development Gives Organizations a Competitive Advantage

Organizations committed to the development of their leaders gain a competitive advantage in the following 4 ways.

Infographic: 4 Ways Investing in Leadership Development Drives Organizational Success

Investments in leadership development yield:

  1. Better bottom-line financial performance.
  2. Ability to attract, develop, and retain talent.
  3. Improved strategy execution.
  4. Increased success in navigating change.

Leadership Development: What Works & What Doesn’t

What does it take to earn those benefits? Knowing that there’s a big difference between leadership development solutions that work — and those that don’t — is a critical starting point.

Avoid These Leadership Development Missteps

1. Avoid overselling a single workshop, learning module, or book.

One inspiring speaker or Big Idea should not replace or short-circuit the hard work of learning and doing. Remember that while new information, ideas, and tools are essential for learning new skills and gaining new perspectives, motivation and support are also required for leadership development to have impact.

2. Don’t expect large-scale change without linking business strategy and leadership strategy.

Managers, teams, and individual contributors can — and should — build the skills that drive performance, such as communication, influence, and learning agility. But developing individual leaders is not the same thing as investing in large-scale, systemic change that enhances the leadership culture of an entire organization and cultivates the specific leadership skills needed to implement a business strategy.

3. Resist launching leadership initiatives without senior-level support.

According to leadership development research, this dynamic occurs all too often and undermines the effectiveness of leadership development. It is essential to have full engagement from senior executives who are committed to modeling effective leadership for the organization and providing the resources for these initiatives. If employees see that leadership development is not a top priority for their bosses, they won’t commit to it, either.

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Encourage These Actions to Ensure Leadership Development Works

Leadership development research shows that training works when organizations take the following actions to ensure its success:

1. Make leadership development a learning process, not just an event.

Learning is a process, and leadership development works best when it is viewed as more than merely a program. Leadership development should include formal or classroom-based training — but that is just one piece of the learning puzzle.

You probably know the 70-20-10 framework for leadership development: 10% of learning comes from courses, 20% from other people, and 70% through on-the-job experiences and challenges. This framework is based on our pioneering studies of key events in executive’s lives and highlights the relative impact of 3 types of experiences on their leadership development. When all 3 areas are factored in, the results are amplified.

The process of self-assessment and thinking about leadership goals is ongoing and should be the starting point for any formal development program, course, or assignment. Strive to connect the content and value of the development to the organizational purpose and situation.

Help people get past the initial awkward phase that usually comes with trying out new skills or behaviors by reinforcing and supporting action-learning, mentoring, coaching, and other approaches.

2. Inform the learning experience with cutting-edge, global research.

Personal stories and leadership experience are often interesting and useful guides for individual leaders. But truly understanding what scalable leadership development looks like at individual, team, organizational, and societal levels starts with data — high-quality research that helps clients understand what their challenges are and serves as the basis for building effective solutions.

Our global research on women’s leadership and leadership across cultures, for example, played a key role in an effort to develop a more diverse pipeline of leaders at industrial technology company Ingersoll Rand. The initiative ultimately increased retention, performance, and promotions of participants, creating lasting competitive advantage for Ingersoll Rand.

Similarly, our leadership development research on boundary spanning, change, and strategic leadership strongly informed work with Credicorp, the leading banking institution in Peru, as it pursued aggressive international growth. This initiative linked leadership strategy with Credicorp’s business strategy, leading to an improved stock price and accelerating annual revenues.

3. Connect classroom lessons to on-the-job leadership challenges.

Leaders need to see how a new insight, approach, or behavior change will impact the things that matter most to them.

They want relevance in a general sense (Oh, of course, I need to improve how I influence my peers), but they also need a clear link to their specific challenges (Max and I share our technical resources and it’s not going well. I need to do something different if I am going to get my part of the product development done on time).

We ask learners to select a key leadership challenge before coming to a program or engaging in a development experience. This challenge is an existing project that aligns with the organization’s strategy and requires new approaches to be successful. It provides a direct link from the workplace to what is being taught and a clear reason to practice new skills. It becomes a focal point for learning, and the person knows at the end of the program what they can do next to address their challenge.

Leaders also work with an in-class accountability partner and an at-work learning partner. Peers who have learned together and colleagues who understand the organizational context are powerful resources for linking an off-site experience to strategic work and day-to-day demands.

Critics of leadership development tend to focus on the challenge of linking lessons learned in the classroom to real life.

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How to Make Learning Stick in the Real World

Of course, if a leader or an organization chooses to put up walls between leadership development and doing the work, that is a problem. But according to leadership development research, there are many ways to make learning stick and get the most out of leadership development, including:

  • Protect against overload. Build in the expectation that time is needed to reflect, practice, plan, and implement change during the development process.
  • Get the team involved. Team members can keep learners focused, accountable, and on track by pointing out opportunities for incorporating learning, as well as giving feedback on progress.
  • Use coaching. One-on-one or group coaching can provide high-touch support and perspective, create continuity, and help learners stay on track with their goals.
  • Offer reinforcements. People may want to go back and review a topic from their program, reinforce a key lesson, dig deeper into a challenge, or share ideas with coworkers. Facilitate this continued learning by offering related or targeted courses, webinars, lunch-and-learns, tools, books, or online learning.
  • Build a community. Some organizations build networks where “graduates” of specific leadership development programs can maintain connections, share tips and experiences, and discuss challenges.
  • Evaluate program impact. Follow-up evaluation can do 3 things:
    • Give you information about the impact of the development experience and how it can be improved,
    • Encourage people to reflect on the impact of development, and
    • Remind employees that development is important to the organization.

Of course, evaluation should be built on sound research principles and evaluation best practices.

As CCL President and CEO John R. Ryan often says, “Leadership is like a muscle. The more intelligently you train, the stronger you get.”

CCL’s own impact data, which includes feedback from thousands of leaders and their coworkers globally, shows that more than 90% of program participants make major strides as leaders in ways that drive overall organizational success.

leadership development research - infographic showing the proven impact of leadership development

When leadership development is done the right way, measurable and lasting impact follows.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

It’s clear that a high-quality leadership development program can have lasting positive impacts on your organization’s ability to perform and grow. Give your leaders the training they need to move your business into the future with custom online leadership training solutions tailored to your needs. 

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