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Why Your Leadership Development Isn't Working

Overcome these 4 challenges and implement these 3 strategies to improve the effectiveness of your leadership development efforts.

Overcome these 4 challenges and implement these 3 strategies to improve the effectiveness of your leadership development efforts.

Companies believe their ability to execute their most complex strategies depends on having high-quality leaders. With quality leadership in high demand, many organizations find themselves with their hands tied as they struggle to hire and develop capable leadership.

Leadership Development is a Top Concern For Executives

DDI released its Global Leadership Forecast, containing some very insightful data. Over 1000 C-level executives were asked to pick from 28 challenges and rank ten with the greatest business concerns. The top-ranking challenges were:

  1. Developing "Next Gen" Leaders - 64%*
  2. Failure to Attract/Retain Talent - 61%
  3. New Competitors Globally - 48%

*% of respondents ranked the issue in their top 5 most challenging. 

It's safe to say that executives are most concerned about having high-quality talent and a sufficient bench of leadership to place in critical roles as needed. It's no wonder this is of great concern either; companies in the top 1/3 of financial performers (based on a composite of operating margin, EBITDA, revenue growth, and return on equity) are twice as likely to have high-quality leaders than those in the bottom third.

DDI's data also reveals that only 30% of HR professionals and 42% of leaders agree the overall quality of their organization's leadership is high. Those numbers are very low, especially considering the importance companies place on leadership needs. The Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board's data shows that 94% of companies plan to increase or maintain their leadership development budget in the next 12 months. How many of these companies will waste time and money, failing to achieve their desired outcome? The answer: a lot of them. DDI's study found that the average success rate of Learning & Development initiatives and programs is only 61%. So why do 39% of companies striving to improve their leaders fail?

4 Reasons Leadership Development Efforts Fail

1. Lack of personalization

An individual may be capable as a leader in one environment, but when thrown into an unknown situation, they may not be able to maintain their past success. Understanding both the leader and their environment are critical to the success of their development.

Understanding the leader

It is essential first to understand the mindset underpinning the leader's behavior. This understanding is essential for both the leader and the program engineer. Leadership programs that do not consider tools such as behavioral assessments are missing a critical component in understanding their talent thoroughly.

Understanding the environment

While it would be ideal to present a high-potential candidate with a list of 20 positive leadership traits and send them on their way, reality requires a more precise focus for learning to be effective. Organizations must promote leadership styles aligning with company culture, operational strategy, and other factors. Organizations that overlook this alignment may nurture leaders who, even with their strengths, may conflict with the ingrained culture or fall short in tackling specific operational issues. Successful leadership development must be context-specific, ensuring emerging leaders possess universally admired traits and the skills and insights required by their immediate environment. This nuanced approach fosters leadership that resonates, driving both individual and organizational success.

2. Need for on-the-job practice

Lectures have proven to be the lowest on the totem pole of effective learning. A high-level understanding of human psychology can go a long way in creating effective leadership development. Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy outlining a learning activity hierarchy. This theory of learning insists that leadership development efforts promote opportunities to apply the learned behavior. Something as simple as having the leader call a short meeting with team members to update them on some of the concepts they are being introduced to can help bolster their ability to retain the information. However, retaining the lesson is only part of the battle. For a leadership quality to take root, they must practice with repetition. Participants must be given real-work experiences to test new approaches and practice their learning. 

3. More areas to monitor, provide feedback, and measure

Finding ways to monitor progress, provide feedback, and measure the development's success are all components of a successful system.

Monitor progress and provide feedback

Development programs need touchpoints with leaders to check in and evaluate how their work has changed since the program. Similarly, leaders need the ability to easily and freely communicate which areas they're struggling with, opening the door to course correct early and improve upon existing efforts.

Measure the results

Finding quantifiable measures to evaluate the effectiveness of development efforts can be challenging, but it is attainable. Companies that don't measure development success repeat the same development system until they thoughtlessly decide it's not working. In contrast, companies with effective measurements create opportunities for improvement. One common method of behavioral measurement is the use of the popular 360-degree assessment. A completed assessment before a program and another six months later can provide evidence of behavioral change. If development can be tied to a project, comparing data such as cost savings, sales growth, and other financial measures can highlight areas the development is generating a real ROI for the leader's business unit.

4. Insufficient imparted self-awareness

Likely the most important factor in creating successful leadership development is the program's ability to impart effective self-reflection. Self-awareness is one of the cornerstone qualities for effective leadership, yet it remains under-emphasized in many development programs. At its core, self-awareness is understanding one's strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and motivators. Leaders equipped with this introspective insight are better positioned to make balanced decisions, manage stress, and adapt to changing circumstances. It acts as the internal compass guiding leaders through challenging situations, enabling them to respond rather than react impulsively. Without this self-knowledge, even the most skilled leaders can run off-course, making choices misaligned with their values or the organization's needs.

3 Strategies for More Effective Leadership Development

1. Embrace a Holistic Approach

Most leadership development efforts either focus on leadership's technical, hard skills or the behavioral, soft skills of successful leadership. A holistic approach to leadership development balances the need for technical and behavioral development, outlining each leader's unique critical path forward.

One cannot exist without the other in a successful leader. The leader may be the most technically competent professional in their industry, but it means nothing if others will not follow them. Similarly, even if everyone loves them, they will not succeed without the requisite competencies.

Technical Development

Technical capabilities, often labeled as the 'hard skills' of leadership, are the bedrock upon which many leadership attributes are built. These encompass deep, domain-specific knowledge, analytical aptitudes, strategic foresight, and mastery of pertinent tools and technologies. A leader's technical competency is necessary to drive operational efficiency, interpret complex datasets, forecast industry trends, interact with new technologies, and make informed, strategic decisions. Such proficiency amplifies a leader's credibility and authority and equips them to adapt to change, ensuring the organization remains agile and competitive. Development frameworks like McCracken's 10 Pillars of Finance, can help ensure proven methodologies guide programs. 

The path to cultivating these technical capabilities requires a multifaceted approach. Continuous learning is paramount; whether through advanced courses, workshops, or obtaining relevant certifications, leaders must remain attuned to the dynamic shifts in their domains. Classroom lectures will only take learning so far. Hands-on experience is needed to solidify, over time, technical capabilities. Building relationships with seasoned professionals and industry experts can enhance understanding, providing diverse perspectives on current issues. Moreover, staying abreast of industry trends through journals, conferences, and collaborative team interactions nurtures a culture of continuous learning.

Behavioral Development

Behavioral skills, frequently termed the 'soft skills' of leadership, are the intangible yet vital qualities that define the character of a leader. They encompass attributes such as empathy, effective communication, adaptability, and the ability to inspire and motivate teams. In the modern workplace, where teams collaborate across geographies and cultures, leaders need to understand how to influence diverse groups of people. Such skills enable leaders to build strong relationships, navigate conflicts, foster a positive organizational culture, and, most importantly, resonate with their teams on a human level, leading them with authority, heart, and understanding.

Much like their technical counterparts, the journey to hone these behavioral skills demands dedication and introspection. Self-awareness stands at the forefront; recognizing one's strengths and areas for growth is the first step toward meaningful development. Engaging in reflective practices, such as journaling or seeking feedback, can offer valuable insights into one's behavioral tendencies and their impact on others. Training programs focusing on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and effective communication can provide leaders with the tools to navigate complex interpersonal responsibilities. Seeking mentorship or coaching from seasoned leaders can offer real-world strategies for growth. In essence, while technical skills provide the foundational knowledge leaders need to steer their organizations, behavioral skills shape how they connect with, inspire, and lead their teams, ensuring success on all fronts.

2. Blend Traditional and Modern Learning Techniques

Leadership development can't remain stagnant in an era characterized by rapid technological advancement and evolving workplace dynamics. Instead, it must continuously adapt, merging the time-tested methodologies of traditional learning with innovative, modern techniques to craft a robust leadership development strategy.

Traditional learning techniques have their roots in structured classroom settings, face-to-face mentoring, hands-on workshops, and case study analyses. These methods prioritize direct human interaction and real-time feedback and provide leaders with an invaluable foundation. They offer the space for in-depth discussion, role-playing, and networking, allowing leaders to gain from the collective wisdom of their peers and mentors.

On the other hand, modern learning techniques leverage the power of technology to offer flexibility and adaptability. Digital platforms, virtual reality simulations, and e-learning modules enable leaders to learn at their own pace and in diverse environments. These techniques are especially beneficial in a globalized world, where teams span continents and time zones. Digital learning also caters to the digital-native generation of leaders, offering them tools and platforms they're comfortable with, from mobile learning apps to online discussion forums and webinars.

In blending the strengths of both traditional and modern learning approaches, organizations craft a robust development journey for each leader.

3. Promote Peer Learning

Peer learning, often overshadowed by conventional top-down training methods, has emerged as a proven and reliable development technique. By encouraging leaders to learn from one another, organizations tap into diverse experiences, insights, and problem-solving approaches, enriching development efforts.

Leaders aren't just passive recipients of knowledge in a peer learning environment. Instead, they actively engage, share, and challenge one another, fostering an atmosphere of mutual growth. This horizontal flow of information breaks down hierarchical barriers and promotes a culture of open dialogue and feedback. When a leader shares a success story or, equally importantly, a lesson from a past mistake, it resonates deeply with their peers. Such real-world anecdotes provide tangible learning moments that often leave a more lasting imprint than theoretical knowledge alone.

As leaders collaborate, debate, and ideate, a bond forms rooted in shared learning experiences. This network of peer mentors can serve as a vital support system, especially when leaders face challenges or need guidance. Promoting peer learning is more than just facilitating group sessions; it's about creating an organizational ethos that values shared experiences and collective growth. Look for development opportunities that promote peer learning as they are effective at helping new ideas take root quickly.


Despite significant investments, many organizations are grappling with the struggles of their leadership training programs. Among these struggles are a lack of personalization that overlooks individual leaders' unique attributes and environments, a shortfall in practical, on-the-job training experiences, insufficient monitoring and feedback mechanisms, and a deficiency in promoting genuine self-awareness among leaders. To bridge these gaps, program developers must recognize the value of embracing a balanced, holistic approach that marries technical prowess and behavioral skills. Additionally, integrating traditional and contemporary learning methodologies and the benefits of peer-to-peer learning will elevate development efforts and make noticeable, positive changes in developing leaders. 

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