You don’t have to look too far lately for articles or books claiming that leadership training doesn’t work.
But it’s time to stop the hand-wringing. Because there’s plenty of evidence that leadership development does have a powerful and 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 CCL’s own global research group show that substantial investments in leadership development drive performance.
Organizations that are committed to the development of their leaders gain competitive advantage in 4 ways:
- Better bottom-line financial performance.
- Ability to attract, develop, and retain talent.
- Improved strategy execution.
- Increased success in navigating change.
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.
Leadership Development: What Works & What Doesn’t
Here’s what doesn’t work:
1. Over-selling a single workshop or learning module or book. Finding that perfectly inspiring speaker or brilliant framework or Big Idea does not replace or short-circuit the hard work of learning and doing. New information, ideas, or tools are essential for learning new skills and gaining new perspectives — but motivation and support are also required for leadership development to have impact.
2. Expecting 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. Launching leadership initiatives without senior-level support. 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.
Here’s what does work:
1. Making 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 CCL’s 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. A clear effort should be made to connect the content and value of the development to the organizational purpose and situation.
And, reinforcement and support at work through action-learning, mentoring, coaching, and other approaches helps people get past the initial awkward phase that usually comes with trying out new skills or behaviors.
2. Informing 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.
CCL’s 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, CCL 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. Tying what is learned in the classroom to key leadership challenge faced on the job. Leaders need to see how a new insight or different approach or a change in behavior will have impact on 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, also a specific, 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).
CCL asks learners to select a Key Leadership Challenge before coming to a program or engaging in a development experience. A Key Leadership Challenge is an existing project that aligns with the organization’s strategy and requires new approaches to be successful. This challenge 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 both powerful resources for linking an off-site experience to strategic work and day-to-day demands.
The challenge of linking lessons learned to real life is the point where critics of leadership development tend to focus.
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 there are so 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 — and point out opportunities for putting learning into action and give feedback on progress.
- Use coaching. One-on-one or group coaching can provide high-touch support, create continuity, provide perspective, 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. Offer related or targeted courses, webinars, lunch-and-learns, tools, books, or online learning.
- Build a community of practice or social networks. 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.
Just as significantly, independent studies have repeatedly confirmed this fact.
When leadership development is done the right way, measurable and lasting impact follows.