Friday, October 17, 2014

Why Your Leadership Development Program Fails

According to the American Society for Training & Development, businesses in the United States spend more than $170 billion on leadership training programs. And yet, after the training only about 15% of the skills learned are actually transferred to real life situations in the workplace. In fact, that percentage is pretty common for training in many subjects. So, what’s going wrong?

Certainly, one can look to principles of adult learning. Andragogy, the study of adult learning, originated in Europe in the 1950's and was then pioneered as a theory and model of adult learning in the 1970's by Malcolm Knowles, an American practitioner and theorist of adult education, who defined andragogy as "the art and science of helping adults learn.
Knowles identified the six principles of adult learning:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed. Adults tend to resist learning when they feel others are imposing information, ideas or actions on them without context.
  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. Adults relate their own life experiences and ideas to the learning experience.
  • Adults are goal oriented. Adult students come ready to learn when they perceive the subject will directly relate to, and help them with real-life tasks and problems. Theory alone will not hold their attention.
  • Adults are relevancy oriented. Adult learners want to know the relevance of what they are learning to the goals they want to achieve.
  • Adults are practical. They want hands-on experiences that will show them that what they’re learning actually applies to their life and work.
  • Adult learners like respect. Respect for their life experiences; being treated like a colleague with knowledge and expertise of value, collaborating with colleagues of a similar level.
When we look at some of the reasons such programs fail, we can see where some of the problem lie.

Separating Theory from Real Life
Leaders, both current and future, regardless of how talented, often have trouble transferring even the best training experiences to the day to day challenges of their work. Leadership development programs often focus more on theory and ideas rather than on action and learning by doing. Giving them real work projects to apply those new theories and ideas to is a valuable combination that will increase their take-away. It will also provide a bigger ROI to the organization by continuing to work on actual goals.

While planning a program companies should ask themselves a very simple question: what exactly is this program for? Often, these programs focus on a long list of leadership qualities, competencies and mission/vision/values statements. In order to help them remember these long lists, they are frequently summarized in some sort of shorthand. What ends up happening is that managers come away with an alphabet soup of steps, but don’t really know how to apply it all. Identifying a small number of capabilities essential for success in your business or industry, like high quality decision making or strong coaching skills, will produce better results.

The Wrong People at the Wrong Time
Resources are scare for many organizations. Including everyone who expresses a desire for more learning is rarely feasible. Careful selection of participants will help ensure the program will be successful in actually developing future leaders. Participants will also be more invested if they perceive that their fellow participants are as invested and goal-directed as they are. If some participants are not motivated to reach the goal of being a leader, the others may suffer.

Event vs. Process
Most leadership development programs are focused on providing a great training program. Training is an event, but learning is a process. Becoming a leader doesn’t happen in a couple of weeks or even a month of sessions. Skill development takes time. Designing a program that includes periodic updates and refreshers will be more successful and more relevant. You can’t provide quick training and then move on to the next great idea. Companies have to commit to a long-term process, offering numerous opportunities and experiences for the participants over time.

Change won’t happen if minds don’t change. Here’s how the issue is described in an article by McKinsey:

Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors, and bosses—but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change.

It takes time to transform old ways of being into new ones. Few programs provide the opportunity to reflect on the deep seated traits and motives that are limiting effectiveness. 

Delving into the whys and wherefores of deep-seated mindsets help set the stage for future change.

Developing leaders from within makes sense financially and strategically for most organizations. Creating the right program is the real challenge. Continuing the learning process is the key to the program’s success.

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