3 Reasons why your Leadership Development programmes still fail

When you invest a tangible amount of your profit into a leadership development programme, you want to make sure that it will deliver measurable benefit. However, the ROI of leadership development is not always easy to quantify and organisations are not always clear what specifically they need to achieve out of the training in order to align it with overall organisational objectives.

I have spent over a decade researching internal and external factors that determine individual and organisational success, and have been testing my approaches in practice with hundreds of individuals in a form of therapy, executive coaching and tailored leadership development programmes. I would like to share some of my insights about the conditions that pe-determine the effectiveness of personal and professional development within the organisations, in hope that it will equip the decision-makers with valuable insights to shape their people development strategies and make the most out of their investments.

First of all, before we start investing into resources for any operational project or organisational development, it is important to acknowledge the pace of technological development and disruptive innovation that creates a volatile environment in which our businesses operate today.

Our organisations can become vulnerable and unsustainable in the long run, if our leaders are not capable of turning today’s challenges into new future opportunities.

So how can we make sure that our leaders are ready for tomorrow?

The biggest trap that I see organisations falling into, is investing in the needs of the organisation, rather than people the company supposed to be serving. Like TFL trying to maintain its nearly two-centuries-old underground system, most mature businesses also try to maintain their operational infrastructure just to keep running. But incremental change does not guarantee future sustainability, and as Tom Goodwin pointed out in his book ‘Digital Darwinism’ – it is not the candle makers who invented the light bulb.

With this in mind, it is not enough to align people development with business needs – by the time training is delivered, incremental changes implemented and old KPIs achieved – the market will have moved on beyond what you can deliver, where consumer habits evolved into new models of business operation, where the biggest content owners do not produce content, merchandising companies who don’t produce any goods, or where the most convenient taxi operators do not own any cars.

  • This means that before investing into people development, companies should invest in market research and find the direction where the company needs to go to remain competitive and sustain changing demands, habits, and trend preferences of the consumer. Therefore, to ensure the effectiveness of our leadership development, it must be aligned to the changing need and habits of the consumer, and not just the business itself.
Leadership development should be just an extension of the overall company’s strategic development and positioning in the future markets, equipping the workforce with the skills required to successfully provide for evolving consumer requirements.

An inspiring strategy, awareness of barriers to performance as well clarity about the capabilities to be developed must surpass the boundaries of different departments and levels of hierarchy, and create overall strategic development of the entire company. 

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  • The second biggest prerequisite for successful implementation of leadership development programmes is the integrity of the company’s internal culture and psychological safety of the working environment.
Culture is the fertile soil to plant the seeds of organisational change, and any talent management strategy must be framed within the wider context of internal structural change.

People can really only learn in the environment where safety, stability and order are balanced with the right amount of challenge, pressure and change. Too much of the first, and you get stagnation and decline; too much of the latter and you’ll end up with a high turnover and work-related stress absences. The overall long-term financial wellbeing of the organisation depends on the physical and emotional wellbeing of its employees, therefore you need to ensure that any poor engagement, low morale or high turnover issues are addressed first, before investing in higher-level people development infrastructure. Build your house on stable foundations. Life and work in a modern environment are already complex enough – and talent development should make things easier, and not to add an additional level of pressure and stress. According to Harvard Business School research, if your organisation’s systems, practices and behaviours do not change in line with strategic people development requirements, it will set up people to fail.

Third, and very often taken for granted determinant of leadership development success is individuals’ ability to implement all the learning in practice. Like Tony Robin’s ‘Unleash the Power Within’ attendees often don’t know what to do with a transformational-fire-walking experiences in real life, so our training delegates are also back from the learning environment full of motivation and enthusiasm, just to be faced with daunting rigidity of everyday realities to quickly extinguish their high hopes and sometimes even career aspirations.

  • Ideally, the best leadership development should be practical, continuous, on-the-job experience, where every leader receives more complex real-world challenges with appropriate coaching and mentoring from direct superiors, while at the same time developing their own growing team of subordinates and expanding relational responsibilities across the organisation.

However, in reality, this lean approach to learning and self-sustaining growth culture is not always feasible and around 85 of the leadership development uses some form of formal classroom training. Where the training is partially detached from everyday execution, ensure that:

  • the training is specifically tailored to align talent development with the overall strategic change of organisation and each individual, via pre-training diagnostic
  • the leaders on the programme have opportunities to practice new behaviours required and gain ongoing feedback throughout the development
  • the executive coaching is available as a follow up, to address any personal concerns outside of training room and bridge the gap between theory and practice. The reasearch on public sector management shows that when training was followed by executive coaching, it led to 88% productivity increase – a worthwhile consideration.

In summary, organisations need to be forward-thinking and pro-actively developing not only their individual leaders but an entire organisational strategy and culture in line with market insights. To ensure the long-term success of leadership development programmes, it must be:

  • Aligned with the inspiring vision and innovative market positioning strategy to meet changing habits, needs, and trends of the consumer.
  • Tailored to unique challenges of the business, diagnosing and addressing barriers to performance and overall capability development strategy,
  • Delivered within a pre-existing internal culture of corporate wellbeing, established values and behaviours and effective employee support systems allowing safe developmental challenges and opportunities for growth.
  • Integrated into practical every-day learning and followed with ongoing feedback, opportunities to practice new behaviours, and personal coaching.

The main reason for leadership development failure is organisations inability to align talent management strategy and internal organisational development to the fast-changing needs of the consumer market. A lot of leadership trainers and management consultants still operate the ‘business needs first’ model, which results in organisations never being able to fully grasp the level of change required to embrace the opportunities of the modern world and tap into the potential of future innovation. Marketing insights should have more room at the decision-making table to influence not only social media spend, but also on the direction of organisational change and leadership capability development strategy.

According to Alan Kay, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

So, what are you waiting for? 


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Evelina Dzimanaviciute is a founder and director of Elite Mind Academy. Through L&D consulting, leadership development and coaching, she helps executives and business owners to lead with impact during highly-demanding business changes. Her neuroscience-based approach to personal development helps organisations to establish engaging learning cultures and create holistic wellbeing systems to support long-term sustainability and growth.

Book your FREE consultation with Evelina here.

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