The Uncomfortable Truth about Leadership Training

Let’s get it out right up front – organizations spend billions every year on leadership training yet see little, if any, change in actions or results.  The uncomfortable truth is that most leadership training is a waste of time and money.  To better understand this situation, we need to look at three critical questions.

-Why does most training fail?

-Why do companies continue to spend money for so little value?

-What steps can you take to make sure that your investment isn’t wasted?


There are several reasons why training fails.

  • Confuse skill and perspective problems – This factor may be the single most common cause for why training fails.  Perspective affects how people define value, engage others, and perform skills.  For example, you train a person to have “difficult” conversations, but the behavior never changes.  Why?  Because the block in performance wasn’t about skill but about fear of having that conversation, with that particular person.


  • Focus more on “head” than “hands” – As budgets are trimmed and more training moves online, leadership development continues to shift towards knowledge and away from skills.  Online learning is great for knowledge acquisition, especially technical knowlwdge, but it’s very poor for skill development.  You can’t learn how to have an influence conversation by watching – you must actually practice and get feedback and then practice some more.


  • Fail to manage application – It’s almost proverbial that a person attends a workshop, gets excited about applying the new skills, but then returns to work and falls back into old patterns, quickly forgetting what he just learned.  It you want to people to apply new skills, you must set and manage expectations, measure performance, and reinforce successful performance.


  • Fail to provide coaching – It’s also true that all training requires the help of a little coaching.  Learning skills in a workshop is not the same as applying skills on the job, so someone needs insure successful skill transfer.  The most effective and efficient coaching typically comes from the manager, but peers and external coaches can also be useful.



So, why do companies continue to spend the money?

  • There ARE performance gaps – Even though training often fails, the performance gap is often real, and skill limits are still one of the causes.  This challenge may be the most frustrating one for HR/L&D people, who know there are skill gaps but frequently struggle to close them.


  • More people need leadership skills – 21st century leadership is less about hierarchy and authority and more about influencing and managing performance across networks and geography.  As organizations continue to shrink overhead, increase globalization, and expand virtual workplaces more people need the skills to be self-directed performers.  These skills – influence without authority, resolve conflicts collaboratively, manage others’ performance without authority – are basically leadership skills for the masses.


  • Some see training as benefit, not investment – The final reason is unfortunate but still common.  As companies continue to shrink payrolls (through downsizing and salary reductions), people often see training as a relatively inexpensive “benefit” that can be offered in the hope that it will mollify dissatisfied employees.



What can you do to get value for your investment in development?

  • Improve assessment – The first step is to make sure about what you need the person to develop.  Is there a gap in skill that is causing some off-track performance, and what skill is missing?  Is there a limit in perspective that blocks the person from applying skills he already has?  Before you spend time and money on any development activity, make sure you know the true cause.


  • Build perspective and skills – It’s not enough to run courses or deliver online programs that develop knowledge.  You must shift the focus onto building and applying skills, and also broadening perspective.  If you want to improve results, you have to change the way people perform, not simply the way they think.


  • Manage skill application – Once you implement your development programs, you must set expectations for employees to apply the skills, and for managers to measure and coach skill application.  If you could only take one step to improve your development ROI, this step is a good place to start.


  • Remove roadblocks – However, one step isn’t enough, because this step is probably the most critical.  The most powerful skills – like influence and conflict resolution – are typically underutilized because most people have been conditioned to avoid difficult conversations with the most important people.  If you don’t take some steps to remove the fears connected with these conversations, then you will continue to get little value from your training.


  • Improve managerial coaching – The most effective development happens close to the work – where new skills are immediately relevant, feedback is timely, and there are regular opportunities to practice.  A good manager – one trained to coach both skill and perspective – is the single most efficient and effective development resource.


I hope that these thoughts can help you get a better return on your development efforts.