Why leadership training has no effect (and what to do about it)

There is plenty of research available underlining the importance of leadership training and how those companies with a focus on developing their leaders outperform their competitors. This goes both on the financial level as well as on the task of accelerating business. If you’re looking for statistics and numbers you’ll find it from both Bersin by Deloitte as well as McKinsey and Company – just Google or Bing the headline above.

Investing in leadership development is rarely an investment in numbers but rather a matter of belief as the effect is difficult to measure – especially short term. As one who has experienced leadership training from both sides and has a passion for the topic I’d like to share some thoughts on why leadership training has no effect.

But first a word on the future of work and leadership:

‘In terms of the future many leaders might find their present role completely obsolete…’

A movement that is getting traction is that of companies (typically start-ups) that are completely abandoning the top-down matrix model as we know it from large corporations. These companies focus far more on competencies* for the job to be done than they do on titles meaning they’re getting rid of bottlenecks in terms of decision-making and letting employees make most decisions themselves.


The future skillset of leaders will therefore be to act more as facilitators and coaches; those who spark collaboration and grow employees (along with the business). In many ways, this is also why most leadership training is falling short: it is ineffective to focus on leadership as an individual skill – it need to be seen in a larger context where leadership is basically the tool for achieving your goals – in collaboration with others.

Now back on track: Here are 6 issues that greatly influence the effect of leadership training:

1. The reason for doing leadership training in the first place

Whilst top-management probably both argued and agreed that leadership training was the way forward, the reason for the training is not directly apparent to the participants. This leaves participants on the fly not sure of the purpose of them being a part of the training. For those left outside this can be either as a feeling of relief for not being forced to be part of yet another corporate idea or envy not knowing why they were not selected to take part.

Is the training meant to accelerate top performers or to expand the toolbox of leaders who are not meant to climb the corporate ladder? Is leadership training for the selected few or for all leaders? And if not amongst the selected few does this mean that one is not part of the long-term plan in the company? How about talents who hasn’t yet filled up a managerial role? How do they fit in the picture?

‘Everyone excluded consider themselves less as part of the organisation’


2. Communication

The decision to take on leadership training must – absolutely must – be communicated within the organisation. E-mails, newsletters and company video-updates are the perfect tools to make sure that employees/leaders feel disengaged. Do it right – make it personal. (Afterwards you can follow up via multiple channels)

If the company can afford to start up a leadership programme across the organisation, those in charge should be able to find and afford the time to talk directly to those involved. Otherwise rest assured they are disengaged from the beginning and will be spending more time with their laptops and smartphones during the leadership training than diving in deep for a learning and development experience.

‘Head down in their laptops they are merely following example…’


3. Different programmes are set up for those working in production and those working in administration (or sometimes HQ vs. divisions)

Whilst there might be a perfectly good reason for separating the two, such as different strategic goals what happens is that the company miss out on a perfect opportunity to build bridges between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and let leaders find common ground creating and inspiring a ‘WE’.

It is through social interaction we get to know each other, build trust and hence start supporting and encouraging each other. One would think that it’s important to break down silos and find those infamous synergies. Hence leadership training should not be the wedge used to separate departments/business units rather the glue that bring them together.

‘Let alone that diversity contributes to better ideas, solutions and profit and build up vital company spirit’

Why leadership training has no effect


4. Junior/1st line leaders are not mixed with top level seniors

Whilst some leadership programmes are aimed at specific challenges within the organisation the better of the programmes support leadership being something not only exercised but equally something that is talked about and discussed.

Leadership is about walking the talk – in many ways it is also about talking the walk. How will 1st line/junior leaders KNOW this training is important if they don’t get to talk leadership with their top-level seniors? And how will the experienced (and sometimes isolated) leaders find out what is on the mind of junior leaders if they are not put together in a forum like leadership training? For sure this interaction will not happen by itself – it need a big spark to get started.

Rarely C-level executives are getting their ‘hands dirty’ with the mob although that would be inspirational. As Junior/1st line leaders fail to experience the commitment from top level seniors they disengage. Also senior leaders who doesn’t feel the commitment from the top disengage.

‘The first people lost are the brightest and most talented as they go job hunting…’


5. Leadership is on the agenda (really?)

The organisation has determined that leadership is on the agenda and important if not vital for the future of the company. Yet leadership is not an item discussed during weekly, monthly, quarterly meetings etc. It’s not even part of the any other business bullet on the agenda. If leadership within the organisation is not something that is nurtured and kept alive it will wither away. I’m sure you’ve sat in on many meetings where you discussed a lot of burning platforms (managerial stuff) in the company – did you also discuss the burning desires (leadership stuff)?

The mature organisations that are presently working out of a purpose led direction have an advantage here – yet they too are challenged when it comes to talk openly about leadership. Talking openly about leadership means that it is accepted to talk about e.g. ethics and morale because this is the only way that the leaders can build up long term consensus and trust.

‘There is no quick fix for leadership development. It has to be on the agenda continuously…’


6. Performance Reviews – what you measure you improve

You can make leadership abilities part of the annual or six-month performance evaluation. However, this evaluation is losing leverage overall as many companies have already found it to be insufficient (I recon you have too). Performance development is a continued process that goes on every day – not something that happens once or twice a year. Would you wait 6 months to fix your car if it sounds odd?

Performance and improvement of same should be on the agenda daily as the leader develop his/her colleagues, both at peer level as well as above and below aiming at making other people succeed. As Generation Y is estimated to account for +60% of the workforce by 2025 leaders of today need to focus on collaboration to be accepted as leaders of tomorrow. A good leader is a good facilitator and manage to bring out the best ideas, make them happen and have a thriving team at the same time.

‘The future role of the leader will most likely be that of a company coach’


If you think something is missing from the above I’d love to get your inputs so the post can be updated accordingly. Remember to keep it BS free.

Stay safe and inspire WE leadership



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