Spring 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Debate: Has Leadership Development Failed Us?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The argument: Despite companies' best efforts, most leadership development programs don't work.

Leadership development is a customary component of organizations' talent development strategies. However, most times that leadership training fails to result in lasting change.



Tacy M. Byham
CEO, Development Dimensions International

Most talent development executives, like you, have a second-career—as magicians.

You know your leaders are not as good as they need to be. And you question whether all your efforts are really bearing fruit. Yet, at the same time, your company, and organizations around the world, continue to invest heavily in leadership initiatives—up to $50 billion a year—with little impact. Like a magician, you keep trying to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

There are three main reasons why leadership development has been a failure.

First, leadership capability efforts are not hardwired to business strategy. This leads to initiatives that are disconnected and inconsistent across the organization, diluting the overall focus on the core leadership behaviors you are trying to change.

Without properly aligning current leadership capability against business goals, you miss the opportunity to identify key gaps, running the risk of focusing on the wrong things.

Second, almost all of the focus is on quality of content; how well we execute takes back stage. This becomes even more difficult when you are trying to scale efforts across the enterprise or across different countries and cultures. According to the Corporate Leadership Council, one-third of a leadership program's success is related to content and two-thirds are determined by the quality of the implementation.

Finally, despite the best of intentions, many efforts produce no lasting change in terms of behavior and results. Don't be drawn in by the hype of five-minute videos and digitized options. This type of learning can be engaging, but like a quick-fix diet, they don't work. Do you know what's working for you?

Failure to examine the big data and analytics to help understand (and react to) the gap between existing leadership practices and proven value to the business is a detriment to leadership development efforts. Too often we are still content with the smile sheets and anecdotal data. To be effective, we need data-driven analyses.

Data from the DDI and Conference Board 2015|2016 Global Leadership Forecast found that too few organizations are embracing analytics—only 24 percent are effectively measuring the results of their efforts and 21 percent are measuring business impact. But it doesn't have to be this way. Find a partner that has data analysis in their DNA.

DDI recently completed an aggregation of impact studies and analyses of the effectiveness of a leadership program, and found that 65 separate studies show results in increased sales, productivity, and work quality, and decreases in absenteeism, accidents, and production time.

Other factors that decrease the value of leadership development initiatives include:

  • Leadership development has long been viewed as a cost. But it's really an investment in your leaders—and your business.
  • The program is not adopted across the enterprise. If you don't predict and act on issues across geographies and cultures, there will be no consistency and implementation won't succeed.
  • Development is seen as an isolated training event or the "flavor of the month." That's ineffective if you're trying to achieve lasting behavior change. Reinforce learning and sustain the momentum by investing energy and resources to diagnose your leaders and guide them through a targeted journey of experiences.

There's a sizeable difference between leadership training that delivers results and training that doesn't. Don't be a magician.


John R. Ryan
President and CEO, Center for Creative Leadership

When Credicorp, Peru's premier banking institution, created an aggressive plan for international growth, company executives knew the initiative would never succeed without one critical component: leadership development.

It partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to link its business strategy closely with a leadership plan that emphasized strategic leadership, change, and working across boundaries. The bottom-line results from an initiative that involved Credicorp's top 500 leaders and was well aligned with other organizational priorities were rising stock prices and annual revenues that accelerated over a five-year span.


Independent research from Bersin by Deloitte, the Conference Board, and other sources confirms this fact: When it's done the right way, leadership development improves financial performance, attracts and retains talent, drives strategy execution, and makes change easier to navigate.

Unfortunately, leadership development is too many times done the wrong way.

Some organizations rely too much on single workshops or products that provide new ideas or inspiration but don't offer the assessment or support to drive lasting change. Other companies focus solely on individual leader development, and then find that individuals can only be as effective as the larger organizational context in which they lead. We also see leadership initiatives launch without senior-level support.

Collectively, these costly errors are giving leadership development a bad name. But here's the truth: Not all leadership development initiatives are equal. The very best are built on three bedrock principles.

First, make leadership development a learning process, not just an event. CCL established the 70-20-10 framework, which explains that about 70 percent of learning comes through on-the-job experiences, 20 percent from other people, and 10 percent from formal programs. When all three elements are blended, the results are amplified.

The process of self-assessment and thinking about leadership goals should be the starting point for any program—and real effort must be made to connect the content of the program to organizational situations. Assistance from mentors and coaches before, during, and after courses is crucial. And there's no substitute for extended action learning in the workplace, which is central to leadership development initiatives and helps leaders think and act in more sophisticated ways.

Second, tie formal learning to key leadership challenges on the job. Leadership development really sticks when leaders approach it with a real-life, pressing leadership challenge that aligns with their organization's strategy and requires new approaches for success. This challenge provides the direct link back to the workplace and becomes the focal point for learning both inside and outside of the classroom.

It's also valuable to have accountability partners, or colleagues who learn together in courses and share the same organizational context. Back at the office, they help each other leverage their new skills and knowledge amid their day-to-day demands.

And third, take a systemic approach. It's critically important to understand that leadership development is just one of several major elements for accelerating organizational change and success. All of the elements in service of an organization's system and its overall strategy—including technology, innovation, finance, marketing, and other factors—need to be aligned and integrated for leadership development to have its greatest impact. If leadership development is made an orphan, it will die.

Remember this: Leadership is like a muscle. The more intelligently you train, the stronger you get. And when leadership development is done the right way, its power is truly transformative.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Tacy M. Byham, PhD, is CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI). She is co-author of the book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

About the Author

John R. Ryan is president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership. He serves on the board of directors of CIT Group, Barnes & Noble Education, and the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation. He graduated with a BS degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and received an MS degree in administration from George Washington University.

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