Best Practices in HR

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Kirstin Lynde
  February 27, 2018

Why do many leadership development programs fail?

Why are leadership development announcements frequently met with rolled eyes and furtive sidelong glances, rather than enthusiasm?

It doesn’t have to be that way.

According to McKinsey research, two-thirds of 500 executives recently surveyed cited “leadership development” as their #1 human-capital priority. US firms spend almost $14 billion annually trying to strengthen managerial chops. This lavish investment in leadership is not surprising:  how a company’s leaders get things done through others (or not) can make or break corporate strategies and profitability levels.

Why, then, do so many leadership development efforts deliver lackluster results? In “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail”  McKinsey director Pierre Gurdjian identifies several common errors in how leadership programs are built. Here are two of my favorites from McKinsey’s list:

(1) Failure to weave real-life practice opportunities into the program.

As Gurdjian reminds us, adults retain only about 10% of what they hear in a classroom setting — vs. nearly 70% of what they learn by actually doing or trying something new. Classroom role plays and interactive exercises certainly beat lecture formats for this reason.

But the best learning programs also enable a participant to hear good ideas, try them out in real life, assess what worked / what didn’t, then loop back through those steps again. And again. And again.

According to Tara Swart, MIT lecturer and author of Neuroscience for Leadership, learning complex things involves re-wiring our brains’ neural networks over a minimum of 3-6 months. In the recent Fast Company article “What it Takes to Change Your Brain After 25”  Swart says “New connections and pathways are fragile…and only through repetition and practice can those connections be established enough to become habitual or default behaviors.”  Which is why the cards are stacked against a one- or two-week workshop — by itself — creating significant or lasting change.

In my experience over the past 15 years with leadership programs of all shapes and sizes, the best results emerge from 6+ month programs which include a healthy dose of learning-rich field assignments. Such formats enable participants to test drive new managerial approaches with direct reports, then report back on how it went. Another key benefit? Surprising as it might sound at first, such multi-month programs (often involving just a few hours a month of a participant’s time) can be much easier on leaders’ overcrowded schedules than programs which whisk them away from their clients and teams for a week or two of wall-to-wall training.

(2)  Failure to measure results.

Leadership program participants must be aware (and convinced!) of their own individual behavioral gaps. They must be given the opportunity to quantify program-driven improvements. Without these two things, it is unlikely a busy leader will tune in fully to program content — or tackle behavior change assignments with gusto.

For example, most leaders starting my programs believe they have excellent listening skills; a round of starter 360 feedback metrics may quickly put that notion to bed.  Without such carefully-timed feedback, it is far less likely any participant will take the necessary (and sometimes difficult) steps to improve how they tune in to others.

I highly recommend leadership program facilitators develop a “dashboard” for each participant. This dashboard can include before/ after 360 feedback, individually-determined improvement priorities, and other metrics. We always encourage our client companies to quantify longer-term program impact on manager and employee attrition, productivity, performance reviews, promotion rates, and financial performance.

Yes, it would be nice if significant leadership makeovers took just a few days, or even a month. But the reality is that a typical 50-hour program time investment spread over a number of months – rather than over 1-2 weeks — allows a participant much richer hands-on practice opportunities. As well as enough time for neural networks (and ingrained habits) to re-arrange themselves.

Given what’s at stake, it is best to avoid the temptation of leadership program shortcuts where the ratio of classroom learning to hands-on field learning is too high. Leaders can be ushered quickly through such programs. Program participation goals can be checked off as “met” sooner rather than later.  But at what price?