When leadership development misses the mark

New research has found leadership development programmes are not creating the transformational leaders that businesses need today.
By: | February 15, 2019


About the Author
Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRExecutive.com, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources.

Transformation is inevitable in today’s fast-paced, digital world and no business or industry is safe from it.

In Harvard Business Publishing’s 2018 State of Leadership Development report, more than half of the employers surveyed said they were undergoing transformations right now, with another 32% reporting that they had completed a transformation in the past three years.

No change happens without challenges, and according to the Harvard report, the most successful organisations will have transformational leaders at the helm to navigate those obstacles – the challenge is in finding and developing said leaders.

Organisations that understand this need place high priority on learning and development and, in turn, have greater revenue growth, market position and future growth potential than organisations that don’t leverage training as an avenue for success, the report found.

Unfortunately, over the past two years, researchers have found that Learning and Development programmes for leadership development have been missing the mark.

In the 2016 State of Leadership Development report, 75% of respondents said greater innovation was needed in learning techniques used in development programmes. By the time of the 2018 report, that figure had increased to 80%.

This increase surprised Diane Belcher, senior director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, who expected to see a decrease in the latest report.

Innovation is key to transformational learning programmes, she says, and ignoring it by keeping static programmes is one reason for dissatisfaction among leaders, especially millennials.

Younger generations live in a world of real-time, digital interactions, and training leaders should leverage those learning styles.

According to the latest report, millennials (aged 36 and younger) were the most likely to agree that leadership-development programmes needed an innovative overhaul.

Some of the biggest barriers to programme effectiveness cited by this population were: poor content, insufficient expertise from outside sources, and failure to make a compelling case for return on investment.

Fewer than half of the millennial respondents (40%) rated their leadership development programmes as “excellent”, compared to 67% of the Baby Boomer respondents.

Stacey Philpot, head of the Leadership practice at Deloitte Consulting, says the findings about millennials’ overall dissatisfaction with leadership development programmes aren’t surprising.

Younger generations live in a world of real-time, digital interactions, and training leaders should leverage those learning styles.

Philpot suggests that learning content should be offered digitally, on demand and in small chunks. It should be designed with digital interactions between learners at the core.

But technology isn’t the only enhancement to make. To satisfy and retain millennial leaders, development programmes also need to be introduced sooner in an employee’s career.

“As the traditional leadership pipeline approach continues to fade into oblivion, Learning and Development organisations need to stop focusing their development initiatives on ‘levels’, but rather on development by strategic talent groups,” says Philpot.

“Younger generations have less patience and a more short-term career perspective than their predecessors. As such, Learning and Development teams must get them into the development process earlier, and let them know that their talents are recognised and that their ongoing development is the fastest way for them to move throughout the organisation.”

Learning and Development leaders who don’t leverage millennials’ unique skillsets properly are missing out on true innovation, Belcher adds.

“One huge opportunity is recognising the role that these younger leaders can play in making sure the organisation is transformation-ready,” she says.

“Transformation isn’t new for them—they’re used to working through change. They’re resourceful and continually seeking out new knowledge, so training leaders should use this to their advantage and tap into the innate organisational and individual agility that millennials have.”


Marrying business and learning

Learning and Development leaders who don’t leverage millennials’ unique skillsets properly are missing out on true innovation.

Lucrative learning initiatives are those most closely aligned with core business challenges – and those that can be measured, says Belcher.

According to the Harvard report, most organisations use employee satisfaction to determine success of leadership-development programmes (67%), followed by the pipeline of future leaders (60%) and retention of high-potential employees (58%).

What they should be doing instead is implementing business-impact projections and creating an opportunity for learners to apply what they’ve learned to a real business challenge.

At the end of the project, says Belcher, you can see the tangible results and the true impact of the leadership-development programme.

Philpot says what’s missing most often from leadership development are the alignment to the business context, and the seamless integration into a leader’s work.

“Too often, organisations start by trying to answer the question, ‘How will we deliver our leadership development solution?’ ” says Philpot.

“Instead, they should be answering questions like ‘Why is leadership important to us right now?’; ‘Who is most important that we invest in first?’; and ‘What specifically do we need these leaders to be able to do in the context of where our business is going?’”

Philpot adds, however, that it’s not enough to just align to the business strategy. A crucial component of successful development programmes is that they’re built into a leader’s daily life.

Rather than viewing leadership development as an “add-on” to a leader’s work, “context-centered development forces leaders to learn as they work and work as they learn, thus removing the ‘I don’t have time for this’ perspective,’ ” says Philpot.

Development programmes that directly support business transformation need to be continuous experiences where leaders solve real business challenges, practice what they’re learning, learn from each other, and get hands-on exposure to ideas outside of their workplace, experts say.

Belcher says the best programmes have buy-in from the most senior executives, who then act as teachers for business line leaders.

“Acrucial component of successful development programmes is that they’re built into a leader’s daily life.

“When I think about a perfect leadership development programme, it starts with the top of the organisation to get everyone aligned,” Belcher says.

“Then those senior leaders are part of the programme acting as teachers and mentors for more junior leaders, who learn how to present action-based learning. It’s this model that helps everyone in the organisation learn and embrace behavioural changes.”

If at the centre of every business transformation is the need for leadership transformation, there should be no question about supporting Learning and Development teams to achieve both objectives.

This, however, puts great onus on training leaders to ensure that the development programmes are directly tied to the specific needs of the transformation.

“There can be no doubt in the minds of the leaders as to why they are being developed, and what is expected of them in a post-transformation organisation,” says Philpot.

“The first step is recognising that transforming a business without simultaneously transforming its leaders is a fool’s errand.”