It is well documented that there is a significant positive relationship between leadership and a range of organisational and employee performance measures, including productivity, financial performance, organisational innovation, and customer and client satisfaction*.

Therefore it is not surprising that the majority of medium to large size organisations are focusing on and investing significantly in developing their leaders. 

But is the investment delivering bang for the buck?  Well, often not, but why?  Because of five common fatal flaws in the design and delivery of Leadership Development Programs. Let's take a look at these flaws, and most importantly, how to avoid them.

1. A mile wide and an inch deep

This one is all too common – Leadership Development Programs that try and cover every possible aspect of leadership.  Far too many leadership competencies are addressed – both briefly and superficially. 

In such scenarios, curriculum-based development programs cram as much content into the workshop time as possible, cognitively overloading participants and boring people into submission with “chalk and talk” in order to get through it all.

How to avoid it: Your program design and delivery should focus in-depth on a small number of key leadership competencies, linked to your business strategy. This is how your investment will ultimately pay dividends.


2. One Size Fits All

It would seem that many leadership programs are designed to provide each participant with the exact same learning experience – AKA sheep-dipping.  This is often done to help make delivery of the program more cost effective or to ensure that everyone gets the same experience. 

But a one-size fits all approach is counter to adult learning principles, as it fails to acknowledge the range of knowledge, experience, job contexts and learning needs across the group. 

A sure way to disengage a leadership development program participant is to waste their time focusing on areas in which they are already highly competent, and to disrespect the knowledge and experience they already bring to the table.

How to avoid it: Get to know the background, experience, strengths, interests and development needs of participants prior to commencing the program – by actually talking to them! 

Build flexibility and options into the Leadership Development Program so that it can be tailored to individuals while still achieving the desired outcomes. Use recognition of prior learning to ensure that each participant's development time is well spent.


3. Development only happens in the training room

Congratulations. You have completed the Acme Corporation Leadership Development Program.  By attending five days of training room based learning, you are now a much improved and fully capable leader who can go back out into the workplace and put it all into practice. 

Unlikely, however this is effectively what many organisations are suggesting when Leadership Development is almost entirely classroom based and/or the program is conducted over a short period of say just a few months.

How to avoid it: Curriculum and workshop time should be just one component of a Leadership Development Program.  Design a program that utilises multiple and continuous learning and development methods such as simulations, on-the-job learning, coaching (external, manager led, peer to peer), stretch assignments, action-learning projects, peer organised learning pods, and self-directed learning.   

Ensure that the program’s duration allows sufficient time to absorb, reflect, apply and refine learning (several times over).


4. Participants not held accountable for their development

You can safely bet that in most Leadership Development Programs there will be an assessment at the conclusion of the program.  But it’s usually the facilitators and the program itself that are assessed and often not the most important people in the equation – the participants!  

Too often there is a lack of clear accountability for learners to maximise the return on both the organisation’s and their own investment in their leadership development. 

Has their leadership capability improved?  Has there been behaviour change and growth as a leader?  Are their team, peers and manager noticing the difference?

It’s also astounding how many managers will send one of their people on a Leadership Development Program but have little or no involvement with the person’s journey along the way - providing a contrast with the program's focus on high quality and engaging leadership.

How to avoid it:

  • Conduct a pre and post program assessment for each participant in relation to key leadership competencies; and
  • Have participants’ managers closely involved in the program throughout its entirety (supporting and encouraging them, working with them on a development plan, providing on-the-job development opportunities, meeting with them regularly to discuss progress etc).


5. No clear link to other talent management processes

Leadership Development Programs are frequently conducted in isolation from other key talent management processes. 

Often, already existing inputs such as recent performance feedback and assessment data from when they were recruited aren't utilised, when in fact they could help the participant understand their current strengths and development needs.

Also, data generated during the program often doesn’t flow back into the organisation’s talent processes such as talent and succession management, recruitment and selection, and performance management. 

How to avoid it:  Actively plan to link your Leadership Development Program and other talent management processes. This will help the development of participants on the program and also maximise the benefit for the organisation by ensuring talent data is being utilised.  It will also help motivate participants to actively participate in the program, knowing that the outcomes are visible and meaningful.


Wrap Up

Leadership Development Programs, planned, designed and delivered well, can have a big impact on an organisation’s success.  By avoiding these common flaws you can maximise your organisation’s return on investment and attract and retain top leaders. 

What do you see as making the biggest difference to the success of leadership development programs?


* Workplace Leadership: A Review of Prior Research. Centre for Workplace Leadership, July 2014

AuthorMichael Sleap