Leadership Era
ATD Blog

A New Era Is Needed for Leadership Development

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In my October 2015 and November 2015 blog posts, I shared how current leadership development programs are ineffective, insufficient, and incapable of meeting the needs of leaders in today’s organizations. Leadership development is failing companies, failing workers, failing managers—and even failing society. In fact, an overwhelming majority (86 percent) of HR and business leaders think leadership development is ineffective, according to the 2015 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2015 Report, and only 18 percent of programs are held accountable for identifying and developing successors.

Clearly, a paradigm shift is necessary. Organizations need to stop thinking about the best course or best competencies, and start thinking about culture, goals, and people. Josh Bersin, founder and principal of Bersin by Deloitte, explains in Why Leadership Development Needs to Be a Long-Term Business Imperative that leadership development must remain a consistent investment, not just a periodic program or episodic effort.

Critical Factors for Leadership Development 

Success For leadership development to be successful, talent development leaders need to consider several elements.

  • WHAT is your organization like in terms of culture, industry, size, and growth? 
  • WHERE is your organization headed? What does it need to get there specifically? 
  • WHO are you working with and how do you need to work with both internal and external partners and collaborators? Is it a team environment in name only
  • HOW can learning and the right behaviors be reinforced, rewarded, and measured? How can you show that you’re on the right track? 
  • WHEN will follow-up occur, and who is responsible for that?  
  • WHY now? What would happen if leadership development didn’t happen? Or, as I postulated in my October 2015 post, should we outsource leadership to people who are skilled in leadership?

These questions are the framework for identifying how leadership development needs to work for your organization. In essence, leadership development needs to be customized, specific, and performed in a way that fits and works for your leaders—because no one size fits all. Other items to keep in mind include:

  1. Supervisor and frontline manager training is straightforward across the board. Policies, procedures, and the “how-to” support of managing workers must be standardized. They also need to be linked to your organization’s other policies and procedures, as well as an overarching leadership model.
  2. Leadership development must be designed specifically for the needs, goals, culture, and strategy of your organization—and the individuals in your organization. If you work in teams, you should learn as a team.
  3. Leadership is an art, an attitude, and an ability. Not everyone is a leader, or should be. But the people who are leaders need to be concerned about a) their workers, staff, departments, or business unit, and b) the results they are responsible to achieve. If these aren’t the top two goals of every leader, they should be in a different position.
  4. Coaching, as well as understanding how each individual in your organization learns best and responds best to support and measurement, are important elements in designing and delivering the right content and programs.

Leadership Development Best Practices

Leaders as teachers. Smart organizations use their leaders to inspire, mentor, coach, and train others. GE is well-known for this practice; Ed Betof , former CLO of Becton-Dickinson, also used it extensively and wrote about it in “Leaders as Teachers: Unlock the Teaching Potential of Your Company's Best and Brightest.


Just-in-time learning. This practice calls for performing and applying learning when it is needed. It’s a theme applied often to Millennials, but it makes sense for anyone. I’m not saying, “learn it today, use it today.” Rather, people should “learn it and use it or reinforce it within a week before it starts fading,” which happens with 80 percent of content within 30 days of learning, according to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

Action projects and learning reinforcement. These are outstanding approaches to tangibly apply what’s learned outside the job, to the job. Learning must be as closely linked to work and the workplace as possible. For more information on using action projects and service learning, see my article, “Leadership Learning,” co-authored with Pete Rawlings in the June 2005 issue of T+D Magazine.

Job aids, wikis, and performance support. We can’t remember everything, so performance support and job aids ensure that we do the right thing and follow the right approach without having to remember it all. Allison Rossett has an excellent book called Job Aids and Performance Support that can help you learn more.

Manager support, including pre- and post-learning discussions. Learning must be supported, reinforced, and rewarded by superiors, otherwise it won’t matter. Monique Valcour writes about the importance of the manager role in individual and team development in her 2014 HBR article, “If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material.”


Team approach. We work in teams, yet learn as individuals. Does that make sense? Recent research in 2015 by Julie Rozovsky, analyst of Google People Operations, writes in The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team: “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” For insight, check out Patrick Lencioni, who offers excellent ways to grow as a team—whether it’s a senior leadership team or business unit team. And, you have the added bonus that everyone on the team will understand the methods and approaches.

Multi-feedback assessment and coaching. Multi-rater assessments ensure that people get feedback from all around. What’s more, when coaching is tied to learning, retention and application increase dramatically. Kenneth Nowack explains in his article, “360 Feedback: From Insight to Improvement,” from the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Manager, how public managers (and truly all managers) can use and benefit from multi-rater assessments and feedback. 

Moving Forward

What else can we do propose leadership development inside our organizations? Here’s what I propose:

  • Align leadership development with your organization culture, goals, and growth needs. Create a leadership model that works for your organization.  
  • Choose people who want to lead and develop others. Choose some others to manage the business, and choose even others to execute a three-track system: leadership track, management track, and technical track.  
  • Train and learn in intact teams, not just in peer groups or in isolation. 
  • Use coaches to support the learning and application to work—and make sure the coaches know and support the goals and culture of your organization. 
  • Make learning accessible in many ways through online, classroom, learning bytes, learning on the go, mobile learning, and informal learning. 
  • Reward leaders who grow and development talent.

Think about a sports team taking a rookie who is skilled but needs development. They get developed through practice, coaching, mentoring, and in game and game-type (practice) situations. Each time they practice or play, they are measured on how they are doing. How can you replicate this type of system and measure consistently for growth and development?
To be sure, this is a lot to consider. The programs and content are out there. But without ensuring a consistent fit for your organization, you’ll get the same results as before. You need to choose what fits and how to make it work for your organization. But the future success of the leaders who will take your organization forward is at stake.

To learn more on how to develop impactful programs to train your future superstars, join us for an upcoming Creating Leadership Development Programs Certificate

About the Author

Howard Prager is president of Advance Learning Group, a firm specializing in reinventing leadership development and learning strategy. A consultant to Fortune 500, government, and nonprofit organizations, Howard is a frequent contributor to the ATD Senior Leaders & Executives Community. He has spent more than 30 years working on and understanding leadership development in business, organizations, and higher education.

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