Remember the story of the mega-healthy breakfast cereal we were all eating back in the 1980s?

According to the hype on the packets it was stacked with enough nutrients to turn us into a race of super-people. The rumour was if you ate it more than once a day you might get banned from competitive sport, be unable to find clothes to go over your muscular frame, and find everyone else at Mensa a bit thick.

The big brand behind the cereal had employed the smartest marketing guys in the room, and they had done their job. This cereal was fantastic: everyone liked the taste and felt proud of themselves for eating it.

Then some scientists ran an experiment, and found that for nutritional value you’d be much better off eating the box!

The same is true for 95% of all the leadership and management training going on in the UK right now. Honestly – you’re better off eating the box.

We’re probably spending more money on it than we threw at the breakfast cereal. And in some ways we expect it to do more for us. While I think we all secretly knew the cereal was just a sugary snack, it seems we do expect leadership and management development to create effective leaders and managers for our organisations. 

And yet most of what is on offer is just like the cereal. It’s nice enough while you’re eating it, but any benefit you get from it is over as soon as you walk out of the seminar room. Grown-ups who want something more substantial have to look elsewhere, while everyone else is left feeling grumpy and hollow.

Short-term benefits

We could say the point of a breakfast cereal is to give you enough energy for the morning, and provide you with some of the vitamins, nutrients etc you need for longer-term health. You could think of leaders and managers the same way. Their job is to create the results the organisation needs today, and make sure that the company will continue to be successful tomorrow. 

The problem with our breakfast cereal was that it gave you a massive sugar hit that wore off after about an hour, and pretty much nothing for longer-term health. Most training available today does not even give you the sugar hit.

Here are some short-term results you might expect from a management course:

– A manager re-organised their department so that it runs more efficiently

– A manager used skills learned to clinch a sale, directly impacting the bottom line

– A manager ran delegation, appraisals and one to one meetings differently, building the confidence and motivation of his/her team

These might be considered the short-term energy boost from a development program. And yet most programs on offer today do not come close to delivering this kind of results because they are not designed to create any impact in the workplace. Just like the breakfast cereal, which despite what its advertising implied, was not designed to improve our health.

If you aren’t focusing on creating results, there won’t be any

For results like this to consistently emerge from a training program, its main focus has to be creating results. Results Based Development means:

1. The course has to be multiple sessions over a period of time – close to nothing will happen as a result of one- or two-day courses, nor week-long retreats at fancy hotels.

2. There must be an expectation that delegates apply the material in the workplace between each session and create results – and they should report those results back to their colleagues on the program at the next event. Nothing will happen if a course is modular, but nobody applies the material at work between the days.

3. There must be enough gaps for application in the workplace – ideally four or five. You never learned tap-dancing or swimming after just two lessons, why would you expect to pick up management after two or three talks?

Do a Google search now and you’ll find most courses – even those run by prestigious institutions – do not contain any or all of these features. The predominant model is one or two days of input. Where the program is run over a number of events, there is rarely an expectation that delegates apply the material and create results in between these sessions, still less that they formally report their results to the group.

Clearly this diet of sugary pap is leaving us dissatisfied. In July this year the BIS stated that the level of management capability in the UK is behind that in many of our European neighbours. 

If that is a little self-interested for you (it was written with the help of management development specialists, and there is nothing for them in saying we are all brilliant at management), then visit any online HR network and look for posts on how to measure ROI from training. 

You’ll quickly find hundreds of crazy schemes trying to work out if all the breakfast cereal style input was worth it. Almost all of these involve surveys carried out after the course is over, or tracking the future career of those who attended the course. (If your measure of success is who was promoted 3 years after the program… you’re in trouble).

The fact is, if delegates did not report any results at the time, there weren’t any. And there won’t be any three years later. None. They’d have been better off eating the box.

Long-term benefits for who?

Long-term it’s the same story – more empty calories. If you didn’t do some things and create some results while you were on the course, you won’t have developed your skills or understanding for later in your career. 

You might be able to answer some questions about leadership, or impress your friends at a cocktail party, but what you can actually do won’t change. You’ll have heard a lot of leadership description, but won’t have gained any understanding.

So who does benefit? Well, all this breakfast-cereal type training does produce results – big ones. For the people who sell it. Just like the breakfast cereal made millions for the manufacturers, so these courses make millions for the training outfits. And they know they are on to a good thing, because no matter how many courses you go on, you’ll soon be hungry for something else.

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