When Leadership Development Programs Fail

In 2012, a joint study by The Conference Board and McKinsey asked over 500 executives to rank their top three human-capital priorities for both the near- and distant-future. It found almost two-thirds of respondents put leadership development as their top priority.

Yet further studies by McKinsey and other experts have made the case that most leadership development programs fail. Even though billions are spent in the development industry, vendors and buyers have become locked in a dance of spending, dissatisfaction, and chasing new trends.

Of course, there are some leadership development programs that succeed. What’s challenging from a policy standpoint is there are a lot of similarities between those who succeed and those who fail. For example, many failing leadership programs deploy quality content from a reputable source -- just as successful ones do.

But what does change from one company to another is context. In other words, the ways in which content is grouped, presented, talked about, and applied are just as important as finding “the right” content for a successful leadership program. Failures in leadership development are often failures to set the context.

For example, consider failures in:


Grouping content

Having access to a lot of content is a good thing. But do you really need thousands of titles to have a good learning library? Not really. As we discuss in our whitepaper on how many eLearning courses you need, choosing relevant titles from a huge library and organizing them into useful units is a daunting task -- even before taking into account issues of relevance and quality control. So having a well-organized and accessible system is almost as important as the content itself.


Presenting content

There are many small ways to improve your content’s uptake. Presenting stats in the right way, using faces in presentations, and dividing content into bite-sized pieces are just a few examples of how to improve understanding and retention of content. And the better understanding and retention are, the more likely your leadership development program succeeds.


Talking about content

Are you setting realistic expectations? On the one hand, you might be overselling what your program can do, especially in the short run. On the other hand, not setting expectations at all can be equally as damaging. When creating a leadership development program, be clear about the goals and expectations for the program and its participants, and show how they fit into a long-term business strategy. But don’t promise the moon. People can tell when you are over-hyping an initiative.


Applying content

People retain approximately 10% of the abstract information they see and hear...but retain a good deal more when they can practice and apply learned skills. This is true of leadership skills: people are better leaders when they can practice their skills and apply them immediately to practical on-the-job situations. Having practical content that can be delivered just-in-time helps make this happen.


Going beyond content

One of the biggest problems to arise from leadership development is when reflection on leadership becomes decoupled from leadership-in-the-trenches. Being a leader requires more than a store of abstract knowledge. It requires a certain amount of comfort in the role, what Harvard Business Review contributor Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.” And the only way to get that courage, says Bregman, is to actually give people opportunities to step into real situations they find uncomfortable -- but that truly do require leadership.

Now we're not saying good, quality content is not important. Good content is necessary for program success but -- by itself -- it is not sufficient. Grouping, presenting, talking about, and applying content must be prominent features of any leadership development program.

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