I’ve spent more than a decade working in three related and intersecting fields: Training, Learning & Development, and Leadership Development. One can certainly make a case that these all fall under Talent Development. In my current role, I am a Leadership Development Manager & Advisor. I partner with senior leaders and top decision-makers on ways to improve human behaviors in the workplace and on how to make people and organizations more effective (e.g., leadership development, training & development, etc.). I’m involved in developing and implementing key initiatives, training, and programs to create and sustain a high-performing organization. Finally, I’m often tasked with developing, designing, and delivering leadership development training.
I want to talk about some common issues and challenges in leadership development training. I’m sharing best practices drawn from various resources and lessons learned from my own experience working within organizations in the hope that it will help you avoid missteps and prevent catastrophes as you design and execute leadership training in your own organizations.
The Biggest Challenge Leaders In Organizations Face Today
Based on my experiences and observations, one of the biggest challenges leaders in organizations face today is how to recruit, develop, and sustain leaders in the company, and how to ensure that there’s a pipeline of leaders who will be able to move into leadership roles. The need for this is what all organizations experience or face, which is the need to have effective leadership, not only at the very top, but also at the mid-level and front-line level of the organization.
Leader Development, Leadership Development, and Leadership Training
Leader development focuses on developing individual leaders whereas leadership development focuses on a process of development that inherently involves multiple individuals (e.g., leaders and followers or among peers in a self-managed work team) (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014).
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines leadership development as “formal and informal training and professional development programs designed to assist employees in developing leadership skills” (SHRM, 2020).
Leadership training programs are programs that have been designed to enhance leader knowledge, skills, abilities. They include all types of leader, managerial, and supervisory training/development programs and/or workshops (Lacerenza, Reyes, Marlow, Joseph, & Salas, 2017).
“Leader development is broadly defined as the expansion of a person’s capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes. For organizations, developing leaders includes enhancing their performance in current roles, improving their ability to carry out the tasks of leadership in ways congruent with changing organizational realities, and, for some, expanding their capacity to take on higher positions” (McCauley, Kanaga, & Lafferty, 2010, p. 29).
Three Mistakes about Leadership Training
The first and biggest mistake is not doing a needs assessment. Too many organizational leaders blindly dive in and begin developing a leadership training program without ever doing a needs assessment. They think that once you have someone or some team design a leadership development program that it will automatically—by sheer willpower and wishful thinking—become successful just because it was created. Leadership development does not work in a vacuum or silo. It has to be a part of an organization’s DNA and corporate culture and mindset. The leadership training program is but one event that must be part of a larger strategic plan to grow and sustain leaders for the company’s current and future needs.
The second mistake is a tendency to try to cram too much content into the training and expecting participants who attend the leadership development program to instantly become an instant expert or a “leader” (i.e., meeting all the objectives of the program) once the program ends. In some ways, they treat it like a hot dog eating contest — the faster and more you consume in the allotted time the better. Instead of a seamless, connected, and well-organized program, what results is often a confusing and disjointed hodgepodge of courses and sessions.
The third mistake is failing to evaluate the leadership training program. One of the fears to training evaluation is that evaluating will yield unwanted or unfavorable information about the training program (e.g., audience, design, delivery, presenters, instructional contents, etc.). Another fear to evaluating is struggling with when to evaluate and how to isolate the effects of training. However, rather than fearing evaluation, we should think of it in this manner: “Training evaluation provides a way to understand the investments that training produces and provides information needed to improve training. . . Training evaluation provides the data needed to demonstrate that training does offer benefits to the company” (Noe, 2017, p. 249).
We’ll delve into more details about evaluation in the Training Evaluation section.
“[E]vidence suggests that [leadership training] improves learning, transfer, and organizational outcomes by up to 29% (Lacerenza et al., 2017). Thus, not only do these programs affect leaders participating in the programs (i.e., by increasing learning and their ability to utilize concepts on the job, which is known as transfer), but they also influence desired subordinate outcomes as well (e.g., subordinate job satisfaction, turnover; Lacerenza et al., 2017)” (Lacerenza, Marlow, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2018, p. 521).
Researchers have suggested that “leadership training developers should pay close attention to the desired outcome (e.g., organizational results, transfer, learning) because leadership training programs may be more effective for some than others. While leadership training typically shows positive results for affective learning and affective transfer, they tend to be even stronger for cognitive learning, cognitive transfer, skill-based learning, and skill-based transfer . . . [W]hen designing a leadership training program, it might be more beneficial to include (and evaluate) cognitive and/or skill-based content” (Lacerenza, Marlow, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2018, p. 522).
Key Questions Leaders Should Ask About Training (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012):
Steps to Effective Training (Davies, 2007)
[For information on how to develop and implement a coherent training strategy, consult The Training Manager’s Desktop Guide (2nd ed.) by Eddie Davies]
Step one: Identify the training need
Instead of jumping in and solving the immediate problem, you need “to investigate to identify the true cause. This will help you decide if the problem is one that can be solved by training or will other remedies be more effective” (Davies, 2007, p. 101).
Step two: Design/choose the training/development intervention
Influences on the design of training to consider include: Training facilities available (space and equipment); time available; type of trainee; organization’s culture; learning objectives; skills of trainer; principles of learning; group size; budget (Davies, 2007).
Step three: Implement the event
“Senior management will need to be seen to be backing the programme. In addition to the customary chief executive’s letter of support, try to ensure that all senior managers that are due to attend come on the early courses. . . . In addition to gaining the explicit commitment of senior managers you will also need to make sure that the immediate line managers of the participants are also involved in the process. They will form an important role in raising trainee’s expectations before they attend. An equally essential activity will involve them in de-briefing the trainees when they return to work. This discussion should focus on how the new learning can be applied to make a real difference to both the individuals and organization’s performance” (Davies, 2007, p. 108-109).
Step four: Follow-up the training/development
“Training does not start and end in the training room. It is a widely reported phenomenon that whilst trainees learn in the classroom they sometimes fail to translate their learning back to the workplace. . . [Y]ou should also be thinking about this transferability of skills as part of the overall design. Individual sessions should end with time for reflection and review, and the participants should return to work with an action plan they can discuss with their managers” (Davies, 2007, p. 109).
Step five: Evaluate the outcome
“This final stage will involve you in going back to the start of the training cycle. The whole process was started because someone identified a need that could best be addressed through training. For the training department to survive and prosper it must show that it has been of benefit by providing the solutions in an efficient, effective and economical way” (Davies, 2007, p. 110).
An area in the leadership training space that requires particular attention is training evaluation or, rather, the lack of or inadequate measurement of leadership development training. As mentioned earlier, one of the fears and obstacles to training evaluation is deciding when to evaluate and how to isolate the effects of training (Kraiger, 2002). Another fear, often understood but not openly discussed, “for not conducting more rigorous evaluations is that the training function may have everything to lose and nothing to gain from the data” (Kraiger, 2002, p. 340).
Two strategies for increasing the impact of training evaluation practices (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012):
(1) Begin training evaluation efforts by clearly specifying one or more purposes for the evaluation and should then link all subsequent decisions of what and how to measure to the stated purposes. STEP: Clearly specify the purpose of evaluation. ACTION: Determine what you hope to accomplish by evaluating the training and link all subsequent decisions back to the purpose (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).
(2) Use precise affective, cognitive, and/or behavioral measures that reflect the intended learning outcomes. STEP: Consider evaluating training at multiple levels. ACTIONS: (a) Consider measuring reactions, learning, behavior, and results. (b) Use precise affective, cognitive, and/or behavioral indicators to measure the intended learning outcomes as uncovered during the needs assessment (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).
As Kraiger (2002) explained: The art of training evaluation springs from knowing why. What’s the purpose for evaluation (is it for decision making, feedback, and/or marketing)? How will the results be used to make decisions affecting training courses or the training function?
We need to know what to measure but to also be able to place it into a larger context in which success indicators and reasons why the evaluation is being conducted are considered.
The training evaluation outcomes table (Table 6.1) from the Noe textbook (2017) is helpful. Training outcomes are grouped into six categories: reaction outcomes, learning or cognitive outcomes, behavior and skill-based outcomes, affective outcomes, results, and return on investment.
“Table 6.1 shows training outcomes, the level they correspond to in Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model, a description of each of the outcomes and how they are measured, and the question that each outcome can help answer. Kirkpatrick’s original evaluation model included only four levels (reaction, learning, behavior, and results) but recent thinking suggests a fifth level, return on investment (ROI), is necessary to demonstrate the financial value of training. Both level 1 and level 2 outcomes (reactions and learning) are collected at the completion of training, before trainees return to the job. Level 3 outcomes (behavior/skills) can also be collected at the completion of training to determine trainees’ behavior or skill level at that point. To determine whether trainees are using training content back on the job (i.e., whether transfer of training has occurred), level 3, level 4, and/or level 5 outcomes can be collected. Level 3 criteria can be collected to determine whether behavior/skills are being used on the job. Level 4 and level 5 criteria (results and return on investment) can also be used to determine whether training has resulted in an improvement in business results, such as productivity or customer satisfaction” (Noe, 2017, p. 252).
“A useful taxonomy of content and design dimensions for assessment was provided by Lee and Pershing (1999), and is shown in Exhibit 11.1. The exhibit lists ten potential assessment dimensions, along with the specific purpose for the dimension (what is to be learned, and how that information is useful), and sample questions” (Kraiger, 2002, p. 344).
Avoiding Leadership Training Mistakes
One important tip to always remember is this: Not all participants who attend leadership development training will be successful after training and this is to be expected. The reason is because of two things:
(1) The motivation, attitudes, and expectations of the learner are absolutely critical to training effectiveness (Tannenbaum & Yukl, 1992). If an employee is unmotivated to learn, doesn’t believe in their own abilities, and is not goal-oriented during training then the chances of this employee learning and applying the knowledge and behaviors taught will be negligible (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).
(2) The support and encouragement from the employee’s supervisor is also key to training success. Research shows that one of the biggest determinants to whether training is successful or not is the amount and degree to which each participant’s manager will provide support and offer a chance to practice once the participant is back in his/her role after training (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012). So be sure to ask and have the answers to these post-training questions: (a) How much support and encouragement will they get from their managers/supervisors once they return to their roles after training? (b) Will there be on-the-job training to further support their growth?
It’s very demoralizing for an employee to return from leadership development training to a boss who doesn’t support, encourage, or provide an opportunity for that employee to put into practice the things he or she learned in leadership development training. Indeed, one of the major reasons employees leave an organization is due to the lack of growth and advancement opportunities (Branham, 2012).
Therefore, make sure that the culture of the overall organization and within each department is one that values, supports, and encourages growth of each employee. I would recommend surveying leaders and employees throughout your organization about the amount and level of support they believe they get for training and employee development learning from the overall organization and from within their own teams and departments.
Conducting a “PreMortem” Exercise
A great way to anticipate problems, prior to implementing a leadership development program, is to use what’s called a PreMortem. The purpose of a PreMortem is “to find key vulnerabilities in a plan” (Klein, 2004, p. 98). In a PreMortem, the group tries to anticipate a plan’s weaknesses through the simulations of different disaster and failure scenarios. The group’s job is to then find “ways to counter the weaknesses they have pinpointed” (Klein, 2004, p. 99).
“PreMortem begins with the assumption that the plan has failed. The attitude of complacency and the false sense of security is punctured, at least temporarily, and is replaced by an active search aimed at preventing trouble later on” (Klein, 2004, p. 101).
The PreMortem is designed to provide a safe “format that supports a productive critique of a plan” (Klein, 2004, p. 99). In a PreMortem, the team members independently list everything that worries them about a new plan or project. This method challenges the complacency of the group which can sometimes masquerade as harmony (Klein, 2014).
The PreMortem is used in a project kickoff meeting. The project team has reviewed the plan the members developed. “In the PreMortem exercise, the team is told to imagine that it is now some time in the future — say 6 months from now. We are looking in a crystal ball, and what we see is terrible. The plan has been a disaster. Each person in the room has the next two minutes to write down all the reasons he/she can think of to explain what went wrong. Once the two minutes are up, the facilitator captures what the team members wrote down — a blueprint for failure” (Klein, 2015).
“As a by-product of using the PreMortem exercise, team members will become better at mentally simulating how a plan or project is likely to play out. They will learn from each other about ways that plans can fail, and thereby increase the patterns they can recognize and their mental models, which in turn strengthens their intuitions. These skills enable people to produce better plans and avoid pitfalls” (Klein, 2004, p. 99).
There are various ways to develop a person’s leadership capacity. One type of leader development is leader self-development. “Leader self-development refers to activities that leaders take upon themselves in order to develop their leadership capacity” (Simmons, 2017).
Here’s something to think about:
“Although learning and training are related, they are not the same. Some training fails to produce any learning, and a great deal of learning occurs outside of training. Learning is a desired outcome of training—a process of acquiring new knowledge and behaviors as a result of practice, study, or experience. It involves relatively permanent changes in cognition, behavior, and affect” (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012, p. 77).
What this means is that, even after a weeklong “training” program, a person might not “learn” much or even anything at all. A trainee’s motivation, attitudes, and expectations strongly influence training effectiveness (Tannenbaum & Yukl, 1992). What’s more, only 7 to 9 percent of skill acquisition comes from formal training. Instead, leaders (both formal and informal) are key factors in learning—as they greatly influence what people actually do on the job. Obviously, trainees must continue to learn on the job after they’ve attended “training” (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).
Self-development is learning beyond the classroom and individuals who commit to this learning mindset will grow as a leader (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017).
Leader Development Is Personal Development
“[A]ll people can learn and grow in ways that make them more effective in the various leadership roles and processes they take on” (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010, p. 3). Leader development is about the process of personal development that improves leader effectiveness (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010).
I like the Center for Creative Leadership’s view that leader development is synonymous with personal development (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010): “developing the individual capacities needed for effective leadership—such as self-management, social skills, and work facilitation capabilities—is synonymous with what is often labeled ‘personal development’” (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010, p. 26).
A suggestion I share with leaders (when they seek my advice about self-improvement) is to choose what they want to work on and focus on just that one thing or two things. You don’t need to be perfect and you don’t need to be everything to everybody. You just need to be you, not a “perfect” you, just a “better” you.
“You can’t set goals for every leadership competency you want to develop. Narrow your goals to those that you feel passionate about, those that benefit you or can reduce mistakes, and those that are not too difficult to achieve but still stretch your abilities” (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017, p. 349).
Marshall Goldsmith (2007) has similar advice: “Pick one issue that matters and ‘attack’ it until it doesn’t matter anymore. If you’re a bad listener, choose to become a better listener—not the best listener in the world” (p. 192-193).
Takeaway: Everyone in an organization — from rank-and-file employees to mid- and senior-level, and C-suite members — needs to understand that leadership development is self-development and requires taking an honest and humble examination of yourself. Leader self-development means adopting a “learning beyond the classroom” mindset. Remember, you do not need to be a “perfect” you, just a “better” you. Each of us must continually learn, own up to our mistakes, acknowledge that we do not know enough, and accept that part of learning means to change something about ourselves, even changing something we don’t think needs changing.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
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