What Makes Leadership Training Work



When discussing leadership training with top executives I sometimes hear the words “Leadership training does not work.” Of course I asked them why.

The answer I most often get does not surprise me. They tell me about many different leadership training courses and seminars they had attended. Literally 10’s of thousands of dollars spent on leadership training and development and these executives tell me none of it helped them, or their employees, become a better leader. To a person they share how everything was nicely packaged, information was doled out and at the end of training they took examinations on their new skills. The Leadership Trainer, or Training Organization, told them they now had the skills to be good and effective leaders. They were told they would now be successful. Of course at the end of training they all rated the presenter as excellent and an expert on a topic each of them had just learned about. Each returned to their organization and for a while felt energized with the newly learned knowledge. But nothing in the company changed; nothing about them changed.

I asked them…what did you expect to change? How did you expect to improve your leadership skills and knowledge?

It gets real quiet .

After a few moments and sensing their discomfort I decided to rescue them. I chose to share with them my thoughts, as well as how I work with my clients, regarding leadership training.

An effective leadership training program starts out with a clear understanding of the organization’s mission, values, goals and strategic initiatives. It also includes:

A complete understanding of the role of the leader in the organization

A commitment to leadership development.

A commitment to measuring the return on the investment in leadership development

Measurements that are based upon leadership competencies

Measurements that can be used to show improvement in leadership productivity

Measurements regarding the impact of changing behaviors in both leader and organizational behavior.

Notice that not once have we discussed specific skills to be trained. Not once have we said the training alone would make anyone a better leader. If you want to know what those are then you have to have successfully completed the very first step of understanding the organization…

Off the shelf generic leadership training provides little to no real value when measured against specific productivity improvements or long term behavior change. They all give short term results, sometimes lasting no longer than the time it takes you to get to your car and drive back to work. They simply are not tailored to meet the unique needs of each organization. You have to have more than just training.

But again, training and measurement are not enough. Each learner, each person participating in leadership development needs feedback. Regular feedback from their boss, their mentor, a coach…some kind of periodic and reinforcing feedback that completes the learning experience. This is the only way training will work. Without it all you are doing is throwing your money away on an attendance event; somebody attended training and nothing more.

Training is an investment. It isn’t an exercise in attendance or listening. It takes a significant commitment in terms of time, energy and money. Yet it provides a means of long term sustainability for the company if done right. Equally important, if done right the return on investment, ultimately that positive contribution to performance, productivity and profitability is realized.

The question I ask Executives … “How will you approach training in your organization?”