Leadership Development Shams: Can We Really Develop Leaders?

July 13, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Mark Twain

Success2A fairly recent State of the Industry Report by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) estimates that companies in the US spend nearly $130 billion on employee learning and development. That figure includes direct costs such as salaries for learning professionals, administration, outsourcing activities and other non-salary delivery costs. The estimate is based on the average U.S. organization’s per-employee training expenditure of $1,083.00 multiplied by the number of full-time workers in the U.S., which ASTD puts at 119.7 million.

Jeffrey C. Pfeffer, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University has been quoted as saying “If we practiced medicine like we practice management–based on hunch, intuition and ideology–we would have much more malpractice and a lot of mortality and morbidity.” The same seems particularly true of leadership development programs where actual learning, transfer back to the work environment and enhanced performance is more myth than reality.

In fact, Marshall Goldsmith reviewed how well 86,000 leadership training participants actually learned from the experience. He found that the people who went home, talked about the learning and worked deliberately to implement new behaviors learned best. But those who just went back home and did no follow-up showed no improvement at all.

A recent illuminating study by Taylor and colleagues conducted a new meta-analysis of 107 studies on the effects of management training on training transfer–that is ratings of leaders’ on the job behavior viewed by their bosses, direct reports and colleagues1.

In all analyses they conducted, self-ratings were terribly inflated relative to others who provided ratings. When training was focused on general management skills, the effect size for each of the rater groups was: Self (.72), Boss (.53), Peers (.33) and direct reports (.11). For training focused on just goal setting and performance appraisal skills: Self (1.55), Boss (no studies), Peers (no studies) and direct reports (.33).

In a special analysis of 14 studies that had ratings from the participant, his/her manager, direct reports and peers found the following effect sizes (small effect size is about .2, moderate about .5 and large about .8 or higher) for training focusing on enhancing interpersonal skills:

  • Self Ratings .50
  • Boss Ratings .33
  • Peer Ratings .34
  • Direct Report Ratings .04

As they authors point out, “Our most surprising–and disconcerting– finding was the relatively small average effect sizes for the transfer of interpersonal skills training, the predominant management training topic, derived from subordinates’ ratings.”

They were being liberal to suggest that the effect size they found (.04) could even be considered “relatively small.” What this finding really suggests is that direct reports really didn’t see any meaningful changes in leadership behavior in one of the most common reasons for providing leadership training. Direct reports seemed to observe some changes when the focus of training was based on goal setting and performance appraisal but not hardly any when it was focused on “general management.”

Ok, at least we can say that the use of self-ratings in evaluation of leadership training transfer may be a bit optimistic. If you want to argue that training is resulting in new behviors one the job you would have to really convince me that direct reports don’t really have a great perspective about leadership practices of their bosses. As they say, “people today don’t leave organizations they leave bad bosses.”

Are there ways of increasing the potency of leadership development programs?

Well, at least consider these 10 suggestions below:

  1. Practice Under Pressure Makes Perfect
    Essentially, training is intended to help people develop new habits and enhance effectiveness in specific skills. In order to do so, repetition is important. Also, it is important to allow time to develop and integrate the new habit in one’s daily routine. A week long leadership program is unlikely to lead to the formation of new habits. Initiating behavior change is hard and sustaining it over time is even more challenging. Encourage leaders to practice new behaviors back on the job–under the pressure situations they face every day.
  2. Make it More Than an Event
    Cooking together or rafting down a river makes for a fun interaction. Few of these experiences teach leadership skills that are of practical value to the organization. Link the leadership development intervention to an ongoing process involving the participant’s manager and a mechanism to ensure that developmental plans are tracked and monitored following leadership training.
  3. Consider Different Learning Styles
    In my research I have seen hundreds of people read books and learn nothing. Not everyone learns the same way. Consider blended learning approaches to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity reflect, learn and apply information and skills.
  4. Avoid Case Study Overload
    Leadership development that is predominantly using a case study approach may stimulate problem solving and analysis but it certainly won’t teach leadership skills. Leadership development is about enhancing specific skills and behaviors—you can do case studies all day and not be more competent in what leaders actually are required to do all day.
  5. Evaluate Your Program
    It’s great that the leadership participants liked the facilitator and material. More important is whether anyone notices actual behavior change after the leader leaves the training. If you have to use “happy face” evaluations, at least use a “post-then” approach to enhance the validity of your subjective evaluations. Never heard of “post-then” evaluations? That’s one of the reasons evaluations of leadership development programs are weak or never go beyond “level 1” approaches.
  6. Hold Participant’s Manager Accountable to be a Coach
    If the participant’s manager isn’t involved in the leadership initiative then you have a weak program. Managers of program participants minimally need to share the purpose and goals of the program, clarify expectations and hold the participant accountable to put to together a learning development plan to apply and practice one or more skills taught in the program.
  7. Seek Mentoring and Coaching for Program Participants
    Peer coaching and/or mentoring can be incredibly valuable to amplify and accelerate learning from leadership development efforts. Assigning a peer coach from the program or organizational mentor for each participant can be useful to continue skill practice and discussion outside of the leadership program.
  8. Provide Organizational Problems as Projects
    Experience is the best teacher. Provide actual organizational problems for leaders to solve in small or large groups as part of your leadership development effort. The transfer of learning is stronger than abstract concepts or case studies so commonly used in most leadership training programs.
  9. Help Executives See Themselves Accurately
    We have published research supporting the concept that most leaders have inflated views of their strengths. Incorporate multi-rater or 360 degree feedback assessments in your leadership development efforts to help leaders compare self-perceptions to those of other key internal and external stakeholders. Emphasize the strengths of leaders and encourage behavioral action plans following feedback.
  10. Focus on Health
    Daniel Goleman suggests that 50% to 70% of the culture of a team or organization is directly attributed to the leader’s behavior. Our own research suggests that leaders play the strongest role in creating a psychologically healthy climate2. But, it all starts with leaders who have a balance in life and manage emotions and stress in a positive manner. Driven “Type A” leaders get a lot done but they either breakdown themselves or drive others out of the organization. Effective leadership development training programs should also be integrated with executive health and wellness.

As Harry Truman said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”….Be well…

  1. Taylor, P., Russ-Eft, D. & Taylor, H. (2009). Transfer of management training from alternative perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 104-121 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference. HR Trends, 17, 40-42 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate

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