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No Silver Bullet for Leadership Development Success

By some estimates leadership development is a $50 billion global industry. However, it’s producing less than stellar results for many organizations. 

According to a recent Fortune survey, only 7 percent of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, and only one in 10 said that their leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact. This concurs with new research from McKinsey, which finds that just 11 percent of more than 500 executives around the globe strongly agree that their leadership development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results. 

That’s a problem. To try and understand this disconnect, McKinsey asked executives to share details about when their leadership development programs are effective—and when they are not. The consensus is that “much needs to happen for leadership development to work at scale, and there is no ‘silver bullet’ that will singlehandedly make the difference between success and failure.” 

Here’s the good news: McKinsey uncovered four sets of interventions that can make a difference. Let’s take a closer look.

#1. Contextualizing Programs Based on the Organization’s Position and Strategy

McKinsey analysts Claudio Feser, Nicolai Nielsen, and Michael Rennie explain that organizations often fail to translate their company’s strategy into a leadership model specific to their needs, whether that’s a merger, dealing with digitization of an industry, or global competition. The implications are clear for organizations dealing with of accelerating disruption. 

“Leadership development efforts must be animated by those new strategic imperatives, translating them into growth priorities for individual managers, with empathy for the degree of change required,” they write in a McKinsey Quarterly article detailing the study findings.


#2. Ensuring Sufficient Reach Across the Organization

McKinsey finds that organizations with successful programs were six to seven times more likely than their less successful peers to pursue interventions covering the whole organization, and to design programs in the context of a broader leadership-development strategy.  

The bottom line: “Make it an organizational journey, not cohort specific,” write Feser, Nielsen, and Rennie. But that’s a challenge, they explain, because most programs are short, sporadic, and piecemeal. This makes it difficult for programs “to keep up with changes in the organization’s priorities, much less develop a critical mass of leaders ready to pursue them.” 

#3. Designing the Program for the Transfer of Learning

Companies with successful leadership development programs were four to five times more likely to require participants to apply their learnings in new settings over an extended period and to practice them in their job. This sort of action learning is just one strategy to improve the transfer of leadership development; learning through a positive frame also shows great promise. McKinsey reports that successful leadership developers were around three times more likely to allow participants to build on a strength rather than correcting a development area. In addition, coaching that encourages introspection and self-discovery was three times more prevalent among successful leadership developers.

#4. Using System Reinforcement to Lock in Change

“Given the pace of change today, adapting systems, processes, and culture that can support change-enabling leadership development is critically important,” advises McKinsey. Fortunately, this is one area where technology can really help. Blogs, video messages, and social media platforms can enable leaders to engage with employees as they try to foster great understanding for a major change. Formal talent management structures like performance management systems and talent assessment can also assist with these efforts. 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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