Why Leadership Development Programs Fail and What You Should Do About It

 



Leadership development is expensive and most programs fail to achieve their desired behavioral change. Here are our data driven learnings and how we changed our approach to create more value for our clients.

 

Here’s what we know about leadership development and coaching. Companies spend a ton of money on it. According to a 2012 study, US based companies spend over $14 billion annually on leadership development. In a McKinsey study of upward of 500 executives who were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, leadership development was included as both a current and a future priority. Almost two-thirds of the respondents identified leadership development as their number-one concern.

 

Couple that with other research that shows that most leadership development programs fail to produce their desired level of leadership behavior change and there’s a lot of spending on leadership development and coaching that isn’t providing a return on investment.

 

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can and must make a difference in our coaching and leadership development efforts. But without data to understand how leaders change, you might not be structuring your programs to create the biggest bang for your client’s buck.

 

Here’s what we’ve learned from data we collected in Coachmetrix. It includes the results of 162 leaders who went through a seven-month leadership development program. It offers a few insights into how to best structure a program.

Self score vs supporter score

Let me orient you to the chart above. The red bar charts represent self scores from leadership development participants over a series of six pulse feedback rounds as they progressed through their leadership development experience. The blue bar charts represent supporter scores. Supporters, as defined by Coachmetrix, are people who support leaders throughout their leadership development / coaching journey.

 

They are team members, direct reports and peers who are (1) impacted by the leader’s behavior, (2) in a position to observe the leader in the workplace, and (3) willing to provide ongoing feedback and feedforward to the leader.
Three key themes emerged.

 

Theme #1: There’s a large gap between when a leader changes and others notice

 

The first theme we observed is the gap between when a leader makes a change and when their supporters notice the change. This difference in perception was largest in the earliest stages of the leadership development program. This didn’t surprise us as a leader can make a choice in any given moment to change their behavior, but there’s baggage, history and experience that others have of the leader that can get in the way of noticing that change.

 

What does that inform us to do?

 

One idea: Your programs have to be long enough in duration to provide the structure needed to reinforce behavioral change. Quick hit workshops and targeted coaching sessions help to build awareness and point skills, but rarely result in sustained change.

 

Theme #2: Alignment doesn’t occur until five+ months

 

Related to the first theme, we noticed that it wasn’t until five months after measurement began (about six months into the program) that the leader’s self perception of effectiveness aligned with supporters’ perspective. And, it took six months or beyond for supporters to assess leaders higher than the leader’s self-assessment. A primary goal of coaching and leadership development engagements is to give leaders the tools they need to build self-awareness and understand their impact on people, process and the business – aligning their self perceptions with those of others. A common challenge that leaders have is that supporters often don’t find the change credible until it’s consistently displayed over a long period of time.

 

What does this inform us to do?

 

One idea: Focus on the relationship between the leader and their supporters. Reinforce the strong need to follow-up. Marshall Goldsmith made this clear in his article Leadership is a Contact Sport. In a study of over 10,000 respondents, Marshall Goldsmith found that leaders who consistently followed-up with their people were significantly more likely to show a change in leadership effectiveness.

 

Theme #3: There’s a drop off in performance before sustained change happens

 

A third pattern we identified is that there was almost always a downturn, after an initial upturn, before a continued pattern of positive change emerged. In general, this happened around month five of pulse feedback (six months into our leadership development programs). And the extent to which the downturn happened depended on the strength of the tendencies demonstrated by the participants. In other words, the more inclined a leader was to use a specific set of behaviors, the easier it was to revert back to those natural tendencies under stress.

 

What does this inform us to do?

 

One idea: Leaders have to uncover the underlying mindsets that drive their behaviors. Said differently, the limiting assumptions, beliefs and stories that drive unproductive leadership behaviors need to be understood or sustained change is unlikely to happen. Coaching is hands down the best tool to help a leader through that process.

 

How to Apply These Tools in Your Leadership Development and Coaching Programs

 

Today’s post laid out three gaps we’ve found contribute most to why leadership development programs fail.

 

We can and must close these gaps in our programs.

 

Some of the recommended solutions are structural and coaching tools like Coachmetrix can help.

 

Others solutions require the deeper skillset that can only be found in a coach.

 

Take a hard look at your programs. Where are they strong? What gaps exist? What investments are you willing to make to add more value for your clients?