Why leadership development isn’t working at your company… and how data can solve it



If I asked you if you thought it was important to develop the next generation of leaders at your company, you’d probably say yes. And you’d also probably say yes if asked whether that leadership development would produce ROI for you in the short term.



But if leadership development is such a big priority, why do so many executives attest it doesn’t work?


According to a survey of C-suite executives from SHRM, the Society for Human Resources Management, only 41% think that the leadership development programs at their organizations are of high quality. And HR consultancy Brandon Hall Group found in 2018 that only three-fifths of organizations say that their leaders are ready to manage short-term business goals successfully, and that only 34% of executives say that their leadership development programs have a significant impact on meeting business objectives.


“Leadership development is not really doing its job really well in improving leadership and producing leaders that are ready to successfully manage business goals,” Claude Werder, senior vice president at Brandon Hall Group, admits bluntly. In his words, it’s a “systemic failure.”


Part of the problem is that leadership development needs to produce short-term ROI, not just long-term. Many companies are identifying high-potential future leaders who will be ready 5 to 10 years from now, but not 12 to 18 months. And many organizations can’t agree on what foundational leadership skills they should be training for. Leadership, after all, is different from management -- but research from Brandon Hall Group found from interviews with over 100 different organizations that about a third of leadership development programs are primarily focused on tactical management and process, and another quarter are more focused on business and financial acumen.


Your organization, obviously, is unique, and so are the challenges for which you need to prepare a new generation of leaders. But there’s one area where it seems like everyone could use some improvement: Data. Executives overwhelmingly cite this as the main reason why they don’t think their leadership development programs are working. How are you measuring the impact of these programs, are you getting the right information, and is that information actionable?


As a leader and facilitator, are a few places where you may want to start.


Establish consensus on which competencies you’re developing. You can’t measure results if you’re not in agreement as to what you’re going to be measuring. And 55% of organizations had not reached consensus on what exactly they hoped to achieve among participants in leadership development programs, according to Brandon Hall Group’s research. Are you training leaders to mentor, to make crucial decisions, to improve their relationships with customers, or to uphold and fine-tune the company’s vision? (Usually, it’s all of those and more.) Understand that these goals will vary based on where high-potential individuals are in their careers.


Make data collection an ongoing process, and make expectations clear for participants. When I was a high school football coach, years before entering the corporate world, I learned that you can’t just collect feedback from players at the end of a practice, or worse, at the end of a game. Soliciting feedback and the data that can be gathered from it needs to be an ongoing process. But you can’t do this without buy-in from participants. Establish in the very first minutes of your leadership development program that feedback will be solicited regularly and that the program will be adjusted in real-time in response to it. Ensure that participants have access to a system whereby they can keep track of their progress.


Don’t look for data in the wrong place. Just because it’s “data” doesn’t mean it’s helpful or actionable. According to Brandon Hall Group, 42% of companies use employee exit interviews as a means of measuring leadership development. This is an odd place to look for insight into, considering that people often leave their jobs because of their management. This may create a skewed perspective and an inaccurate read on how leaders-in-training are growing within the company.


Share results widely. “Whatever your findings, share them with business leaders,” HR Magazine editor Dori Meinert has written. “While it might be tempting to hide negative results, hoping no one will remember to ask for the analysis, that strategy won’t likely end well.” This will also ensure that everyone in your organization has buy-in. No individual will have all the answers, so keeping yourself accountable with company-wide (or executive suite-wide) reporting can help you fill in some of the gaps you may miss on your own.


As Claude Werder has pointed out, many leadership development programs might actually be more effective than CEOs think -- the companies just can’t prove results. That’s why demonstrating impact with data is so important. With the very nature of work in a state of unprecedented transformation, having leaders ready for both short- and long-term change is key, and you owe it to your workforce to ensure they’re trained for both the challenges and opportunities they’ll face.


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