There’s a dirty little secret in leadership development that many people involved know about, but don’t often speak about.

The vast majority of leadership development programmes don’t work.

Yes, you read that right, most programmes simply fail to achieve their objectives.  This is despite the fact that 80% of companies viewed leadership development as a high priority in a recent 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report.

Why are so many missing the mark?

There are a number of reasons why leadership development programmes fail, one of which is a human issue – many people forget what they have learnt after the programme has finished. According to Dr Art Kohn, a corporate training consultant and cognitive science expert, people forget an average of 70% of new information within 24 hours.

So managers return to work after training, and nothing changes. They get stuck in the swamp of day-to-day activities, fall into the same behaviours they had before the workshop, and don’t achieve the increase in performance they expected.

This is echoed by a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, called ‘Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It’, in which the authors state: “For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organisational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.”

There are other issues too. According to Dr Robert O Brinkerhoff, a renowned expert in learning effectiveness, 80% of programmes fail to produce impact, and this is due to three main factors:

The problem with leadership development programmes:

According to Training Magazine’s 2018 industry report, total spending on corporate training in the US alone was over $87billion last year. It really is staggering that, despite organisations spending billions on leadership development, 80% simply don’t work.

An important issue here is that many organisations focus on the training event itself, yet fail to think about how they can engage learners both before and after the event. It’s absolutely crucial for line managers to set the scene beforehand and explain why the participant is going on the course and what is expected of them; and then have a conversation afterwards to evaluate what was learnt and how it is going to be implemented. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, this doesn’t happen, yet from our experience, line manager engagement is the single biggest predictor of a training programme’s success.

According to leadership development expert Nick Petrie, the problem with leadership development programmes is that people who attend them don’t actually develop, and this is down to a number of issues:

  1. Too much time is spent delivering information and content, and not enough on the hard work of developing the leaders themselves. Most leaders already know what they should be doing – what they lack is the personal development to do it.
  2. When a leader returns to work they are overwhelmed by tasks, and it’s difficult to convert what was learned in a programme into actions that address real problems.
  3. Most programmes fail to engage the learner’s key stakeholders when back at work. As a result, leaders not only miss out on the support, advice, and accountability of colleagues but they also often experience resistance from stakeholders who are surprised and disrupted by changes participants make in their behaviour.
  4. Leadership development programmes are designed as events rather than as processes over time. Programmes give learners a short-term boost, but not the ongoing follow-up to embed new behaviours into new habits.
  5. Training on its own is one of the top reasons why leadership development fails. Learning must be blended with a variety of inputs over a set amount of time. More emphasis needs to be placed on personal development, facilitating solution discussions, networking, and exposure. It’s important that leaders and managers are involved throughout the whole process before, during and after, and include appropriate coaching with a person whose focus is on the personal development needs of the individual.

Four steps for effective leadership development:

Here are a few tips on how to ensure leadership development programmes are a success: