Why Most Leadership Development Programs Are Not Worth the Time (and Money)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The title of this post might lead you to believe that I don’t think leadership development programs are a worthwhile endeavor. While this is not true, I do believe that the execution of most leadership development programs does not give us the results that we need.

I have been involved with leadership development programs for more than 20 years. I have designed them as part of university executive education programs, I have delivered them for numerous corporate clients, and I have consulted with corporate universities about their leaders’ development. Yet only recently have I begun to realize that most of these programs do not really benefit their organizations.

This epiphany has resulted from conversations with learning and development professionals. When I ask, “Why do leadership development programs?” they usually answer by saying that such programs are required. But when I ask why, they often respond with a question: “Isn’t better leadership a good thing?” I don’t know. If better leadership translates into better business results, it’s a great thing. If better leadership does not yield better business results, then it’s not so great.

The true nature of the problem comes from the responses to my question, “What is the goal of your leadership development program?” The answer, more often than not, is “better leadership.”


Therein lies the problem. The goal of leadership development programs is better leadership. But better leadership is not a business outcome. Better leadership should be a means to an end, but not an end unto itself.


The best way to design a leadership development program (or any learning or development program for that matter) is to start by asking the most important question: “What is the business outcome we are trying to drive?” If you can clearly articulate an answer to that question, you should create a program designed to deliver that outcome. And perhaps the most vitally important principle in learning and development is that if you cannot identify the business outcomes you are trying to drive, then you probably shouldn’t be delivering the program.

In Aha Moments in Talent Management, the fictional protagonist, Maria Green, challenges her Chief Learning Officer to provide an answer to the business outcomes question for every program he delivers. While he balks at first, he finally comes to realize that if he can’t identify the business drivers, then he can’t justify the time, energy, and expense of running a program. It’s true for this fictional company in the book, and it should be an “aha moment” for your learning and development department, too.

Learn additional talent management principles in Mark’s just-released ATD Press book, Aha Moments in Talent Management. And hear from Mark during his free ATD webcast presentation on Monday, August 25.

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About the Author

Mark Allen is an educator, speaker, consultant, and author, specializing in talent management and corporate universities. Mark is a faculty member of Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, a senior associate with the Kiely Group, a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute, and regularly teaches for Vatel University and the American Management Association.

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