Why most leadership development initiatives fail.

Over the past ten years we’ve had the opportunity to work with well 1,000+ executives and CEOs, focused on helping them becoming better leaders, strategists, and visionaries. In that time I’ve seen the aftermath of many failed leadership development initiatives, that we’ve been called in to fix or replace, and they seem to carry a number of similarities. If you’re a CEO, VP HR, or Director of Leadership Development, I think you’ll find this helpful.  Here is a list of the reasons that most leadership development (LD) initiatives fail:

  1. They ignore reality. Good, bad, or ugly, there is a style of leadership that is accepted in your company right now. It’s been woven in to the fabric of the organization until it became the unwritten rule of “how you lead here.” Ignoring the fact that most people don’t look down the organization for tips on leadership they look up, and hoping that by training the “up and comers” below the exec team to behave differently than the exec team does simply doesn’t work. People turn off the volume and watch the video: how are leaders acting in this company so I know how to act like them so one day I can become an exec too. We call it the Video Test. If the senior team doesn’t understand, promote, and clearly demonstrate the behaviours that you are hoping to teach your up and coming high potentials (hi-po’s) then it’s really just paying lip service to leadership.
  2. There’s no connection to the business. Teaching leaders how to lead without showing them the direct connection to the actual situations and circumstances that they are going to run into in your business is leaving out a very crucial step. Making the connection from behaviour to situation to outcome to success based on actual circumstances that occur today in the business or occur frequently in their day-to-day roles is one of the most effective ways to ingrain an approach.
  3. We’ll do it in-house “through HR.” Most HR departments are not equipped to handle facilitation of leadership development programs in-house. It’s not their expertise, they are usually understaffed, and this is the core capability of the company. The most effective way (yes, I know, I’m biased, tough – it’s true), to implement a proper program is to work with an external leadership development partner who is willing to take the time and energy to understand what success looks like for you and the business, and design something that fits your situation (run away fast if they have the solution already built – your business is unique, you deserve a unique solution).
  4. It’s event driven. Holding an annual leadership retreat or semi-annual “learning event” means that for about one month after the event you’ll see some faint signs (usually in the form of terminology from the event) leaking out. After that it’s back to business as usual. The only way adults can actually their behaviour is to: see a model of what world-class behaviour in this area looks like, immerse themselves in learning in a practical way how to change their behaviour, and have the opportunity to revisit the learning on a frequent basis.
  5. Stick it in the LMS (Learning Management System). Right and magically everyone will find it since they spent the majority of their day surfing your corporate intranet looking for learning opportunities (is the sarcasm too light?). Leadership development is something that people need to be invited to participate in in a tangile way. Whether it’s live, on a webinar, a coaching call, whatever, the point is you engage them, not the other way around.
  6. They used an elementary school approach. Remember when you were in elementary school and your teacher was the expert and she told you how to do stuff that you weren’t sure you’d ever use again and that’s how you learned.  Well that’s called pedagogy. There are some things missing from that experience for adults: no control over the learning, no feedback to the person helping me learn, no connection to my reality, and no practical application right now. Adults require interactive, experiential learning where the “teacher” is really facilitating the learning process by bringing forward new concepts in a way that allows the learners to try them out.

If you’re not sure where to get started but you know you need to do something about developing stronger culture of leadership in your business here’s the best ways to begin:

  1. Write a list of all of the leadership behaviours that you don’t like that are going on in your company today.
  2. Take that list and write what the opposite, positive behaviour would look like.
  3. Think one year down the road and ask yourself this question, “what would substantial progress look like for us?”
  4. Interview your executive team and ask them one question, “what are the core leadership abilities that we need to foster in this organization to help us compete in the business over the next 1-5 years?”
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2 responses to “Why most leadership development initiatives fail.

  1. Exactly! Nice post, Mike.

  2. Pingback: Our leadership development philosophy « Some thoughts on strategy, leadership, corporate culture, and technology.

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