How to stop leadership development programmes from failing

Why expensive leadership development programmes fail, and how organisations can ensure success with multifaceted, practical and personalised methods.

By: Leadership Dynamics team


6 mins

Linkedin Leadership DynamicsTwitter Leadership DynamicsFacebook Leadership Dynamics

This article is part of our series on leadership development

It’s frustrating when leadership development programmes do not lead to change in an organisation. And when it can cost upwards of £100k for individual executive degrees or bespoke programmes created for a company to use internally, it can be disappointing when companies don't see their desired return on investment.

This article will run through our key reasons why leadership development programmes fail, and the steps you can take to make sure yours does not.

Why leadership development programmes fail

1. They lack context

Many leadership development programmes assume that the skills and styles of leadership they develop will work across several situations. They may not take into account exactly what the programme is for, or what kind of leaders the company needs to reach its goals. Context is critical to create a programme that is relevant. So, while many programmes cater for different archetypes and styles, that is as far as they will go, without truly understanding the requirements of the learners, their strengths and weaknesses or the reasons they are on the course.

A targeted and contextualised programme can help you make sure every penny of your training budget is being properly utilised.

2. They rely on classroom-based training

Adults only retain 10 percent of what they hear in a classroom. However, if that knowledge is applied practically, they have a much higher chance of understanding and recalling it later. So, any classroom based training should be enhanced with on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring, self-assessment tools, feedback sessions and networking opportunities. The most successful programmes today offer shorter programmes, intensive options, workshops and online-only offerings, and the curriculum needs to be up to date and practical to attract senior executives or win a corporate contract. 

3. They misunderstand the importance of behaviours

Skills and experience are important factors for judging how well a potential leader will perform in the future; but without knowing their behaviours, we cannot get a full picture.

Behaviours tell us what a person is likely to do in a given situation, no matter their experience. So while personality traits show us "who they are", behaviours tell us "how they act". While it’s hard to develop behaviours in an individual, it’s not impossible, but ultimately, the path of least resistance is to identify people with the right behaviours for the job and then develop their competencies to a leadership level.

Some people are naturally good communicators or problem solvers, while others need to work hard to develop those behaviours if they are going to be good leaders. Understanding who is a natural fit for a leadership role can help you choose the right people to fast track with leadership development.

4. They select the wrong people

The traditional approach to promotion is to elevate a company's best practitioners – the most effective lawyers, the top salespeople, the most creative writers. However, a competency does not necessarily make for a good leader, and a poor one can be damaging to a team’s effectiveness and morale. It’s best to place people where they can be their best, which is why choosing the right people to train to be leaders is so important. 

It is also a question of whether an individual is ready to learn. If they do not want to change, all of the classes and coaching in the world will not help. Their mindset and behaviour needs to be open to learning before they can learn.

How to avoid leadership development failure

1. Identify the right people for the job

At the programme planning stage, identify those high-potential employees who align naturally with your company culture and vision and already have the innate behaviours that work well on a leadership team. Finding potential leaders who want to progress in the first place is key, and those that understand that they must change before they can progress are ready for development.

Identifying the people whose skills and goals align most naturally with your company will require less coaxing to do their jobs well. And if their behaviours complement those of the other members of the team, they will function more effectively and ensure the success of your organisation.

Of course, it’s difficult to identify the right people, which is where people analytics tools can help paint an objective profile with relevant data. While performance reviews are useful for understanding past and present, tools that can look at future potential will help seek out the right people for development and provide a roadmap for where to focus their training.

2. Look at the needs of the entire leadership team

Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of an individual is important, but a leadership role doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every senior leader needs to work well with the other individuals on a management team for it to perform well. It’s not enough to place a leader with the right experience and skills into a C-suite position if they cannot work with the wider business. Ensuring cognitive diversity enhances problem-solving and decision-making and behavioural complementarity helps the dynamic towards high performance. 

This is why understanding a future leader’s behavioural profile is so important. Knowing whether they will be compatible with other leaders on the team will save a lot of time and investment.

3. Employ methods that encourage self-awareness

Self-awareness is a key component of emotional intelligence, which is itself a key quality for an effective leader. It’s key for developing skills in decision making, communication and problem solving. Unfortunately, research shows that the more power someone acquires, the less self aware they become. 

A leadership development programme that provides future leaders with opportunities to expand their self-awareness will help them understand their place in the development process. They will understand where they need to improve, making it easier for them to do so.

Any training method that involves feedback sessions, such as coaching and mentoring, will help learners build their self awareness. As will access to self assessment tools (such as PACE) that can use data to help them visualise their progress.

It is important to note that too much emotional intelligence can in fact be a hindrance to leadership. Those with a high degree of EI are sensitive to non-verbal cues and, in our experience, can become overly concerned with how they are perceived, often staying quiet if they feel other people on the team will not listen even if they have something valid to say.

4.  Combine personal development with “real work” experience

Programmes that use training to address specific challenges learners are facing in their day to day are more effective. For example, a learner will focus better if the training reflects their responsibilities in developing a marketing strategy, merging departments, testing a new product or entering a new market.

Within those projects, individuals should be able to work on personal development challenges as well. For example, learning how to mentor and motivate junior members of the team or speaking publicly in front of senior clients.

Combining soft skills training and situational training in a single lesson will help learners retain their new competencies because they are able to apply what they have learned in a real-world setting, and because they will be able to see the benefits.

5. Create a personalised leadership development plan for each future leader

We don’t mean you need to create a programme from scratch. Know that employing a mix of different methods is better than sticking to the old scripts. Most executives are time-poor so if a programme is not highly relevant to their jobs, it will likely be kicked down the road because of the immediate pressures of the day-to-day.

A good way to understand what a potential leader needs is to look at their situational experience. If they have a lot of experience in M&A, but limited experience in consolidating those businesses afterwards, then craft the “real work” training projects towards the weaker experience.

Domain experience vs situational experience:

  • Domain Experience: Market sector area experience, their experience of companies and their market and customer focus. 

  • Situational Experience: How that business has created value whether inorganically e.g. M&A trade exits or organically, internationalisation, digital transformation, operational effectiveness etc.

  • Functional Experience: The individual’s own role in those companies and markets, effectively their work history and their skills or function.

6. Promote a top-down culture of continuous learning

Gaining management buy-in is necessary for any kind of policy change; all organisational change is a top-down affair. If leadership development is pushed only by HR, anyone involved will see it as extra time and expense. But if senior leadership are invested in creating a culture of continuous learning, then future leaders and HR managers will be able to position the programme as a strategic priority.

An ongoing leadership development programme will help ensure leadership sustainability by keeping the leadership pipeline healthy and diverse, and by continually developing your current leaders to be ready for new challenges.

Applying leadership development to your organisation

The fundamental requirement for a successful leadership development programme is an awareness of what the organisation needs for the leadership team to be aligned with the corporate strategy or value creation plan. In other words, assessment comes before implementation.

By using people analytics tools like Leadership Dynamics, companies can understand what’s needed from a leader to fulfil the strategy, identify where the gaps are, and then use that information to either hire in the talent or develop from within. Or as our simple step by step to a successful leadership development programme goes:

  1. Identify the leadership qualities and behaviours required

  2. Assess future leaders objectively with data

  3. Make learning and development integral

  4. Create support systems for continuous learning and development

Read our article How to Develop Leadership Qualities for a High Performing Team to learn more.

Latest insights & impact pieces