Make Learning Stick: Improve Learning Transfer to Get the Most Out of Leadership Development

Make Learning Stick to Get the Most Out of Leadership Development

Are you taking a closer look at “learning transfer” in your organization? Are you wondering how to make sure the lessons taught through your leadership training and development efforts stay with participants and “stick,” even weeks, months, or years later?

There’s no magic bullet to ensure people apply what they learn. But there are steps you can take to create leadership programs, experiences, and support mechanisms that improve learning transfer.

Over time, new skills, perspectives, or behaviors can be reinforced, until they become unconsciously and competently put to use.

As a professional interested in learning and development, you may be in a position to acknowledge and help overcome the challenges of learning in your organizations. You are likely in a position to influence supervisors and executives, as well as potential participants, in leadership development efforts.

You may also have a role in creating and supporting a learning environment. With a better understanding of learning transfer, you can help your organization realize multiple benefits, including a larger impact from developmental experiences, more effective leaders, and a stronger organizational ability to learn and adapt.

The Challenges of Improving Learning Transfer

Individuals — and organizations — face significant challenges in their efforts to apply and integrate learning and develop the leadership capacity they need. These challenges include the following:

  • Formal training is just one aspect of learning.
  • Leadership — and its development — is always dependent on the people involved and the context.
  • Leaders are already overloaded.
  • Learning isn’t always aligned with what matters most.
  • The learning culture clashes with the operational culture.

Given these realities, though, you can still begin to help leaders and your organization overcome challenges to learning transfer — and earn greater benefit from leadership development investments.

How to Improve Learning Transfer

Learning is a process and works best when it’s viewed as more than merely a program. Leadership development can include formal or classroom-based training — but it’s just one piece of the learning puzzle that must have corresponding pieces back on the job.

Research supports the value of extending learning into the workplace and connecting the workplace into formal learning. Most executives cite on-the-job experiences as the key events that shaped them as leaders and taught them important skills, behaviors, or mindsets. In fact, research shows that senior executives distribute their sources of key developmental experiences as 70% on-the-job challenges, 20% other people, and 10% formal coursework and training. At CCL, we use the 70-20-10 “rule” as a guideline rather than a formula for creating learning experiences. Yet, we know that experiences that focus on creating learning in all 3 categories can boost learning transfer and accelerate development.

Learning transfer is also a social process. Learning — and the desired performance that comes from learning — doesn’t take place in isolation. The work context, including the level of support from role models, mentors, peers, coaches, and bosses, has a powerful impact on turning lessons learned into leadership in action.

Drawing on our understanding of and experience with adult learners, we produced a white paper on making learning stick and explaining our 3 x 3 x 3 model for learning transfer. This framework informs our leadership development work — and can be applied to development programs or initiatives within your organization.

The 3 x 3 x 3 Model for Leadership Learning

Our 3 x 3 x 3 model for learning transfer and making leadership learning stick is:

  • Think in 3 Phases: Learning isn’t a one-time event, but rather occurs over time, as explained more below.
    • Prepare
    • Engage, and
    • Apply.
  • Use 3 Strategies: Use at least 3 different approaches to provide a chance to deepen and reinforce learning.
    • A key leadership challenge,
    • In-class accountability partners, and
    • At-work learning partners.
  • Involve 3 Partners: They each have to take responsibility to ensure learning happens and isn’t a passive activity.
    • The learner or participant,
    • The organization, and
    • The training provider.

This 3 x 3 x 3 model for learning transfer helps organizations that need to look at organizational change and leadership development in large-scale and deeply-personalized ways. It also outlines the critical steps that are required of the leadership development sponsor in the organization, as explained in this video:

To Improve Learning Transfer, Think in 3 Phases

What happens before and after the formal part of a program or development effort is just as important as the content and delivery. This is true whether the initiative is long or short, in-person or virtual, ongoing or one-time. At CCL, we think in these 3 phases of “Prepare, Engage, and Apply” to help individuals and organizations get the most out of leadership development.

The Prepare Phase

As soon as a person is tapped for or has chosen to participate in a formal leadership effort, the development process begins. Consider:

  • How might you help participants start learning right away?
  • How do you get them thinking about their leadership experiences, challenges, and needs?
  • How do you help them connect to the purpose, content, and value of their development experience?

This is a time when boss support is crucial. The prepare phase involves good communication about logistics and expectations — but also begins to build an emotional connection to personalize the learning experience. It’s a chance to engage and excite the learner — rather than approaching the process as another item on their to-do list. Research shows that participants begin to engage in a development experience when they’re able to make plans with a boss, mentor, or coach and discuss the support they’ll need and understand how the program will benefit them.

At CCL, we prepare participants for their learning experiences in our leadership programs or customized leadership development by providing guidelines for interviewing key stakeholders, selecting challenges to apply course learning, and asking the learners and their colleagues to complete leadership assessments of their leadership skills and style. Other activities could include reading assignments, videos from past participants describing their experience, or welcome videos or webinars from the faculty.

The Engage Phase

The content of a learning experience is important, but so is the way it’s presented. Listening to speakers and reading information is a passive learning process — and information is less likely to stick than processes that connect and engage each person through applied practice. How might you create opportunities for guided practice and skill development throughout the program?

At CCL, we ensure our learning experiences include a variety of ways to keep learners engaged, whether in a live, face-to-face setting or a virtual program. We use a mix of activities such as skill-building, action-learning, reflection, simulations, experiential activities, goal-setting, and coaching.

The Apply Phase

Reinforcement and support at work — away from the learning environment and over time — is essential for learning transfer. How might you create opportunities for the participants to use and continue new learning at work and beyond? Most people need structures that foster the application of new concepts and practice of new skills to achieve behavior change. Participants need support and encouragement to get past the initial awkward phase that accompanies the application of new skills.

At CCL, we often use tools such as action-learning projects tied to real work issues; conversations to help connect new learning to an existing business challenge; follow-up lessons through reading, discussion, toolkits, or job aids; and virtual executive coaching focused on making progress on goals.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We can help you make learning stick and improve learning transfer. Partner with us for customized leadership development that builds critical leadership skills and competencies needed for your organization’s unique context and culture.


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December 16, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
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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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