• Published November 30, 2021
  • 7 Minute Read

Leadership Development Research: What Works Best — And What Doesn’t?

Published November 30, 2021
Leadership Development Research On What Works — And What Doesn't

Leadership Development Works — We Have Proof — And Here’s How to Do It Most Effectively

Leadership Development Research Points to Key Benefits of Investing in Development

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. Organizations should know that done well, development gives organizations a competitive advantage, among several key reasons to invest in leadership development.

Leadership development research has found that effective development initiatives yield:

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

Leadership Development Research: What Works & What Doesn’t?

Avoid These Leadership Development Missteps

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.

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

One inspiring speaker or big idea shouldn’t 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 boss support are also required for leadership development to have a lasting impact.

2. Don’t expect large-scale change without linking the 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 isn’t the same thing as investing in large-scale, systemic change that enhances and transforms the leadership culture of an entire organization and cultivates the specific leadership skills needed to implement a business strategy. Make sure your organization is linking the business strategy and the leadership strategy together.

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’s essential to have full engagement and visible support and buy-in 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 isn’t a top priority for the senior team, they won’t commit to it, either.

Encourage These Proven Actions to Ensure Leadership Development Works

Leadership development research shows that training works best when organizations take the following actions to ensure its success and take intentional steps to maximize the impact of organizational leadership development initiatives.

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

Learning is a process, and leadership development research confirms that development works best when it’s viewed as more than merely a one-time thing.

Leadership development should include formal training — but that’s 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 executives’ 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, coaching and mentoring, peer support, 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 scaling 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 the retention, performance, and promotions of participants, creating a 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 the learning 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’m going to get my part of the product development done on time.”).

At CCL, in our leadership programs, we ask learners to select a key leadership challenge before engaging in a development experience. This challenge is a real, existing project that aligns with their organization’s strategy and requires new approaches to be successful. It provides a direct link from the workplace to what’s 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 formal coursework to real-life, strategic work and day-to-day demands.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, The Challenges of Scaling Leadership Training, to learn how to build a better workplace culture through scaling development opportunities for employees.

Leadership Development Research Tips to Ensure Retention of Learning

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

Of course, if a leader or an organization chooses to put up walls between leadership development and doing the work, that’s a problem. But according to our decades of leadership development research, there are many ways to make learning “stick” and ensure learning transfer so you 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, and/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 best practices for evaluating the impact of leadership development.

If you follow these best practices from leadership development research, you’ll find that leadership development done the right way leads to a measurable — and lasting — impact on your organization.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

It’s clear from the leadership development research that a high-quality leadership development program can have lasting positive impacts on your organization’s ability to perform and grow. Take advantage of CCL Passport™, which gives you unlimited access to our world-renowned content and our most comprehensive package of proven, transformative leadership solutions. If you license our content, you can bring our proven research, programs, and tools in-house to leaders at all levels of your organization.

  • Published November 30, 2021
  • 7 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Diane Reinhold
Diane Reinhold, MBA
Former Senior Designer & Faculty

Diane’s work at CCL focused on developing, designing, and packaging our content into engaging services, programs, and tools. In 2020, she led the transition of 5 programs from live delivery to digital format to protect clients and staff during the pandemic.

Diane’s work at CCL focused on developing, designing, and packaging our content into engaging services, programs, and tools. In 2020, she led the transition of 5 programs from live delivery to digital format to protect clients and staff during the pandemic.

Tracy Patterson
Tracy Patterson, MPP
Former Portfolio Director & Faculty

Tracy has extensive experience in leading programs and initiatives in the government, nonprofit, and health sectors. During her time at CCL, Tracy directed and expanded our global evaluation function and served as a facilitator for leadership development, program design, and capacity-building programs with nonprofit organizations.

Tracy has extensive experience in leading programs and initiatives in the government, nonprofit, and health sectors. During her time at CCL, Tracy directed and expanded our global evaluation function and served as a facilitator for leadership development, program design, and capacity-building programs with nonprofit organizations.

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About CCL

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.