Why leadership development programs fail

Photo of frustrated, angry businesspeople around a tableLeadership training programs don’t always have the best reputation for success.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this: your company allocated budget for a program, spent time, effort, and money conducting the training, had high hopes for a great outcome, and … ended up disappointed.

Sadly, it’s not all that unusual – AND it’s completely avoidable.

Let’s look at some of the reasons for failure.

You didn’t define “success”

If you don’t know specifically what results you want, you’re almost certain to be disappointed.

What does success look like for your leadership program? How will your fledgling leaders behave? What will happen with their teams? What specific leadership skills and capabilities will they have gained, and how will you measure them?

Training isn’t always the answer

Any experienced training and development practitioner will tell you that senior leaders often think training is a magic wand or silver bullet for their problems.

Disengaged employees? Let’s send the team leads to training.

High turnover? Let’s send the managers to training.

Missed deadlines or poor quality? The team leaders must need training.

You get the picture.

But it ain’t necessarily so. The first step is to assess the root causes of the problem. Then you’ll know if training is the answer, or if there are other factors at play.

It’s the wrong training

There are a lot of great options for training. And brand-name training programs are the obvious choice – right?

Well, maybe.

But maybe not.

It’s easy and natural to look to the major players in the leadership development space. But they come with a high price tag that may result in postponing or cancelling the whole idea.

As I wrote here, there are options if you’re constrained by a low, or even non-existent, budget.

Assuming you’ve determined that training is in fact what’s needed, no training isn’t a good choice.

You’re training the wrong person

Not everyone is cut out to be a leader or even wants to be a leader.

Gallup says just one in ten people are natural leaders, with two more trainable. I don’t agree with that and here’s why.

But it’s nonetheless true that the way corporate career paths are structured usually pushes people into leadership roles who may not want them. Not everyone wants to manage and lead. Plenty of people would rather geek out on their individual role.

If you offer those people advancement within that specialization, without requiring them to manage or lead a team, you’ll have much better results. Find the people who genuinely want to lead, for the right reasons, and train them.

There’s no subsequent support – coaching, peer circles, mentorship

Training without follow-on support is, bluntly, almost always a waste of time.

Leadership isn’t a skill you can just pick up and run with. (It’s actually not a skill at all, of course; it’s a host of interrelated skills and capacities.)

And leadership is individual. It’s not about rules or scripts; it’s about tools, and how each individual leader uses and adapts those tools according to their own unique style.

We’ve all had the experience of attending training and getting back to work and thinking … hmmmm. HOW do I do this again? Applying leadership skills in the intensity and variability of the real world isn’t easy. “Game speed” decisions are remarkably challenging.

Leaders need support to develop newly-learned skills in their day-to-day workplace. Whether that’s a facilitated peer circle, individual or group coaching, or an in-house mentorship program, expecting employees to attend even the best training and be immediately ready to succeed is unrealistic and unfair.

Why do leadership develop programs fail? Avoid these 5 reasons and your program *won't* fail!Click To Tweet

Training is a good thing

The skills, tools, and capacities of leadership are very hard to learn on one’s own. And building a strong leadership bench is essential for the long-term (or even near-term) success of your company.

It’s not hard to conduct successful programs – when you know where the pitfalls are, and how to avoid them.

And not training your first-line and mid-level managers to be good leaders is a mistake. Teach them good leadership habits early, and you won’t have to help them un-learn bad habits later.