When In-Person Leadership Training Works Best

people discussing the benefits of in-person leadership development

All development is self-development. It’s never something that’s done to someone.

We need systems and programs to create frameworks and opportunities for development, but if we neglect the personal commitment of the individuals involved, development will flounder.

If participants aren’t motivated to grow, the effects will be minimal, superficial, and transient. The lesson is that every kind of leadership development has to incorporate a personal element. No single thing works for everyone.

That’s why effective approaches to leadership development will always require a range of modalities and experiences. While online learning can be highly (even surprisingly) effective, in-person leadership training is the right choice for people in key situations.

Here are 2 case studies that illustrate this point.

When In-Person Leadership Training Is Most Effective

Case Study #1: Overwhelming Complex Challenge

Michael called us about one of his new vice presidents. “She seems to have reverted to an old style of hers. She’s digging into the weeds in her new division and is killing the enthusiasm that greeted her appointment only 2 months ago. Can we get her some support with coaching?”

After a little digging around, we found that this leader was showing signs of being overwhelmed by the collision of her expectations and the confusing mix of directions that were driving this newly combined division. Everyone had different expectations and senior management only knew that they expected some great synergy from the new group, but were not themselves very clear about how it would be achieved.

We told Michael: “We can definitely give her a coach, but we think what she really needs is a week away from all of you and a chance to rethink her approach to strategic leadership. Send her to one of our leadership programs for senior executives, and we think she’ll have a chance to get focused on the right level of intervention and figure out her own way to manage the competing pressures. If she wants a coach to help process that, let’s do that after she’s been given the space to exercise the talent you see in her.”

Why in-person, face-to-face training for this situation?

The pressure of a new position, especially one that is subject to multiple forces with differing interests, allows almost no time for real thoughtfulness. And real thought is the most precious and powerful resource a smart and accomplished leader needs in this situation. An in-person leadership development program provides that needed time and space.

The leader can also benchmark her leadership competencies against those of different industries and sectors. The sense of community built into an intense, week-long program away from the workplace, and the focus on strategy, will help keep her stable and get a bigger picture.

Results: The in-person leadership development opportunity worked. Away from the office, she recalibrated her ability to focus on what was really important. She remembered that strategy is a learning process and she was able to create a set of steps to involve her people and stakeholders. They came together over a common view of the opportunities and challenges.

She did work with a coach, primarily to help her team get better at honest, solution-oriented communication. Michael told us later that her people were less anxious and reduced their complaints dramatically.

Case Study #2: Dynamic & Difficult

We were talking with Divya about the custom leadership development program we co-created with her for director-level leaders. Over the 3 years we had worked together, her organization had found that having a common language to talk about leadership, a set of core values driving their leadership strategy, and support for skill development had paid off in important business and reputation results.

Divya was concerned about a few people for whom it didn’t seem to click. One director in particular had a nasty reputation and was viewed as disruptive. He was seen as hard to work with, and peers and direct reports often used words like “rude” and “insensitive” to describe him. He had gone through the company program, but like water off a duck, it rolled right off him.

We suggested, “Don’t get rid of him yet. He makes money for you and has delivered what your customers want. Let’s offer him a leadership development experience based on self-awareness, and see if we can help him manage his toxicity.”

Divya sent him to an in-person session of our flagship Leadership Development Program (LDP)® in Brussels. The key enticement was a chance to really increase his own satisfaction by focusing on maximizing his strengths. The program gives participants a chance to see themselves in a completely new light and to try out undeveloped aspects of their leadership repertoire.

Why in-person leadership training for this situation?

We almost always overestimate the quantity and quality of feedback that a “problem leader” is getting. There are so many social dynamics in the workplace that hinder direct, helpful communication that sometimes the only way to get someone’s attention (without punishing them) is to send them away for an experience, so they can focus.

Also, a leadership development effort that focuses on increasing a leader’s capacity to uncover and respond to how they’re being experienced has long-term benefits as the challenges change. Learning how to learn begins with the understanding that you need to seek out information about your impact.

Results: So far, attending LDP and a little follow-up coaching has turned the director into a more thoughtful leader. It’s still early, but he had the insight that his focus had been only on short-term results. After the program, he said, “I realized I need to balance short- and long-term results… and long-term results require more digging into the thinking and wisdom of my people and my colleagues.”

It’s surprising what creating a little space and time for listening can do to help a leader create a better environment for everyone to perform more willingly.

When In-Person Leadership Training Really Works

4 Key Benefits of In-Person Leadership Development

What are the lessons? These 2 cases illustrate why in-person, face-to-face training programs are so effective.

4 Reasons Why In-Person Leadership Training Is Effective

1. In-person leadership training makes breakthroughs possible through “escaping” the work environment.

Whether someone is primarily working from home, in the office, or in a hybrid workplace arrangement, going to an in-person leadership program means the development occurs someplace else, not in their usual work environment. And psychologically, being in a different location opens us up to new possibilities.

When we need someone to make a significant change in thinking and acting, getting away may be essential. Leaders who operate in a highly complex environment or grapple with complex challenges often reflexively immerse themselves even deeper into those challenges to try to resolve them. But sometimes what they need most is almost the opposite — to temporarily step back from the constant, relentless change and re-focus on the bigger picture.

2. In-person leadership training offers freedom to try out new ways of thinking and behaving. 

Participants in an in-person leadership development setting don’t start from a position of thinking they know each other. They may come from different parts of the same organization, or may be from totally different organizations, industries, cultures, and even countries — and they will likely never see each other again.

The impact on a participant is that they’re free to try on new ways of thinking and behaving that might have felt too different or risky in a work or home setting.

3. In-person, face-to-face training provides quality time to learn with — and from — peers.

A measured environment of challenge, along with plenty of support, provides the right balance of safety and encouragement. Over the course of the program, participants come to care about each other and want others to do well. Physical proximity enables and reinforces deep connections, and helps to foster an environment of psychological safety in which change, including transformational change, can occur.

First-time leaders especially benefit from spending dedicated time with colleagues at their level and creating their own leadership network. The earlier in their careers they can create a peer leader network, the more effective they will be in spanning boundaries and broadening their focus beyond their functional areas of expertise. 

4. An in-person leadership training opportunity offers thoughtful and focused development time.

For many participants, their time away at an in-person leadership training program may be a truly restful retreat, and the only sustained time they’ve paused to take a serious look at themselves in their adult working lives.

These are the reasons that investing in in-person leadership development can be so effective, providing some unique advantages in certain situations.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Partner with us for talent development that grows your leaders and prepares them for the next level. We can create a plan that works for your organization, using in-person leadership training programs alone, or in combination with online and blended learning options.


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February 1, 2023
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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