In the United States, an estimated $166 billion — yes, that's with a "b" — is spent each year on leadership development training, according to a recent Forbes article. Despite this kind of investment, some efforts to upskill leaders flop. Why do some leadership development programs fail? And what can you do to guarantee that your efforts succeed?

1. Programs do not provide senior leadership support.

"Tone at the top" is a phrase often associated with the ethical practices of a firm's leadership. In reality, the tone at the top reflects the values and culture of a firm as whole. How senior leaders choose to spend their valuable time is a strong signal to leaders and employees across an organization of what a company values. When senior leaders make the time to endorse, speak at, or even create a video in support of a training program, it’s a clear and powerful message to the organization that leadership development matters.

But having endorsement from senior leaders is not enough. It is also essential for them to actively demonstrate the concepts being taught in a course. Imagine that a key course concept is about strategic communication or leading during periods of change, yet senior leaders struggle to communicate with transparency. The cultural norms of an organization are shaped and reinforced more via the actions of senior leaders than by any training program. If senior leaders endorse a program but do not actively demonstrate course concepts and key ideas, HR leaders find themselves in a worse position than when they started.

Here are some examples we have seen in action in our leadership development programs, the kind of involvement by senior leaders that makes a huge difference:

  • At a leading medical device company, HR and learning leaders pilot new learning experiences with senior leaders to gain buy-in and to launch key content modules at the top of an organization.
  • At one of the largest retailers in the world, a program for directors starts with a video endorsement from the CEO. And each day of the program, a VP supports a Q&A session and speaks to the cohort for an hour about how they apply key course ideas in their day-to-day role.
  • At a tech startup that strives to be a destination for managers to learn leadership and grow in their career, a C-suite executive speaks each day at a two-day conference to offer support and promote program frameworks.

What do all of these have in common? They are compelling examples of leaders not only taking the time to endorse the program, but also actively demonstrating that they are willing to talk the talk and walk the walk. These leaders are setting the tone for a culture of leadership and continual professional development.

2. There are not enough opportunities to practice.

This prevalent piece of wisdom has stood the test of time: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand. Leadership development programs must move from merely theoretical to practical and experiential. Programs that leverage practice conversations, case studies, and/or experiential business simulations allow leaders to experiment with leadership behaviors and new course concepts. According to McKinsey, “even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures … versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing.”

In addition to this valuable application of leadership behavior and skills, leadership development programs must make the connection between course concepts, participants' own roles back on the job, and the business results that leadership behaviors drive.

Here are some examples we've seen in action:

  • A major federal agency runs a leadership development program focused on conversation practices. They hire professional actors to role-play different simulation characters in order to practice having difficult conversations.
  • A major medical device company runs an emerging leader program that culminates in a team-based case study project and presentation to a panel of senior leaders. These presentations are scored, and teams get quantitative and qualitative feedback on their performance.
  • A major retail and pharmacy company invests in the design and development of a custom business simulation experience that mirrors the business dynamics and company-specific reporting of the organization. This enables leaders to practice within the context of their business and to make mistakes in a safe space.

3. There is not an expert in the front of the room.

Facilitation is an art. Retreats, courses, books, and more: There are undoubtedly many ways to upskill and learn facilitation skills. But to most effectively connect with a group of business leaders who are charged with leading complicated businesses or who are leaders of leaders, facilitators must also be seasoned business leaders. Having rich, extensive experience with businesses is critical to gain buy-in from a group.

Here are some examples we've seen in action:

  • The facilitator of a program is a leader who seeks change in their career and transitions to support leadership development programs.
  • Programs are co-facilitated with a leadership development professional and a business expert. For example, in a finance-specific course, a member of the finance team facilitates key company-specific content.
  • Facilitators have experience in the real world of business and in leadership, and they possess deep functional expertise, which increases their credibility and effectiveness. And they have led — or actively lead — teams requiring strong interpersonal and social skills.

4. There is no call to action.

Let's be real: Even if you have senior leadership support, built-in practice opportunities, and the right person in front of the room to make meaningful connections, there is still a chance your leadership development program might fail. If program participants do not formulate plans for accountability post-program, the time spent in training will not fully transcend the classroom.

Here are some examples we've seen in action:

  • A tech startup collects program commitments at the end of a two-day training session. Sixty days later, program sponsors follow up to seek additional comments from participants about how they are leveraging course content and living up to their commitments.
  • A major retailer leverages microlearning technology to send program participants a reinforcement scenario each week for 10 weeks post-program — all in the name of continuing their learning journeys.

For your next training, we invite you to think creatively about how to engage senior leaders, build in time and opportunity to get hands-on practice, find the right facilitator to connect with the group, and design action commitments that transcend time spent in the classroom. At Insight Experience, we are inspired by the leaders we work with each and every day and would be delighted to talk with you about ways to maximize time spent in leadership development training at your organization.

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