Emily Marsh November 19 2019

5 reasons your leadership development programmes aren’t working

When designing a leadership development programme, avoiding these five common mistakes can help you to successfully drive the adoption of new behaviours and develop stronger and more capable leaders.

For decades, organisations have invested in strengthening the skills and capabilities of their leaders. However, just 7% of organisations rate their leadership development programmes as best in class, according to research by Harvard Business Publishing.

As we highlighted in a recent post, the success of any leadership programme often comes down to whether it results in behaviour change. Yet many organisations find they aren’t changing behaviours fast enough or that the desired behaviours are not being embedded in the long term.

When designing a leadership programme, avoiding these five common mistakes can help you to successfully drive the adoption of new behaviours and develop stronger and more capable leaders.

1. Absence of context

Leadership development is most effective when learned in a real context. Being able to design your programme in the context and setting of existing strategy, culture and values brings the learning to life and helps the participants see where, how, and when they can use it in their daily work. To drive real behaviour change, learners need to know how a core skill is valuable to them, their specific role, and their organisation – the learning needs to be personalised and be able to reflect the complexity, experience, and context within which the participants are operating. Personal to the organisation AND personal to the individual.

How can you ensure that each person gets the most of their learning experience? Self-awareness tools like personality profiling and 360-degree feedback offer personal insights into strengths as well as areas individuals may need to focus more attention on. This means that they start with the end in mind and work on areas that will make the largest difference.

By personalising learning you’re able to increase a valuable level of context that gives leaders a compelling reason to change the way they work.

2. Not enough focus on practice

Organisations often make the mistake of focusing too much on knowledge building and not enough on supporting individuals to practice new skills. Most traditional training workshops will spend 90% of their time on content delivery, missing out on valuable opportunities for individuals to practice new skills in a safe and supported environment.

Practice should be core to the learning experience. It’s not enough just to teach leaders new skills. Practising new skills within a workshop is a great, safe place to start. Like any muscle group we’d like to strengthen; better conversations, delegation, resilience, awareness, engagement, and motivation can all be practiced and honed for better results and more confident leaders.

We all know that outside of a workshop environment real life can hit us hard. Our experience has taught us the value and sustainable benefits of leaders being actively and explicitly supported to practice their new behaviours back in the workplace. Applying a new skill outside of the workshop setting brings a whole new element to learning and this is where growth really takes place.

3. Lack of feedback

Putting new behaviours into practice on the job doesn’t always go as planned. It can feel uncomfortable or strange, and leaders may not always get it right. Just like when trying anything new for the first time, you need to reflect on what went well, what could be improved, and how you may need to do things slightly differently so you can feel even more effective and consistent going forward.

Feedback from those around you is important. Both suggestions for how you could improve and positive reinforcements are vital. If leaders are supported and encouraged to behave in new ways that will help them to achieve their goals, they will be much more likely to adopt and exhibit a new behaviour.

4. Viewing training as a one-off event

Sending leaders off on a workshop makes logistical sense as it means little time away from the day job and the workplace. However, simply learning what to do over the course of one or two days doesn’t lead to acting differently in the workplace.

To drive real and lasting behaviour change requires a continuous learning process that unfolds over time through a variety of training, practice, and reflection.

The days of one-off workshops are fading fast and the most forward-thinking organisations are shifting towards blended learning models designed to get leaders practising new skills, committing to behavioural goals and putting them into action, as well as reflecting on their performance.

5. Not being able to measure results

Many organisations struggle to quantify the value of their investment in leadership programmes. Without clear methods to track and measure behaviour changes and performance over time - we’re talking long after the programme closes too, organisations miss out on a whole load of added value. Being able to measure changes in performance for the individual, the team, and the wider business is critical to making sure that the learning does what you need it to do.

One approach to assess the extent of behaviour change is regular feedback sessions. Leaders share how they personally got on with applying the new behaviour to the workplace and ask line managers and other colleagues, acting as ‘goal mentors’ to feedback about how well they think they have progressed. Leaders can then take this insight to define their commitments going forward.

So what can you do to get the most from your programme?

Context, practice, feedback, and a real understanding of how and why you want to make this behaviour change sustainable will all help to get the most bang for your development-budget buck. Real work learning, engaged and supportive senior management, and a drive to embed these new behaviours in everything you do can and will emphasise the cross-organisational and sustainable impact of your development programme.


The neurobiology of successful behaviour change

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