The McKinsey Quarterly found that its original “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail” publication had the highest readership of all in the 1st Quarter of 2014, and so re-published it a 2nd time. Prior to publication, their survey of about 500 CEO’s had found that 2 out of 3 rated Leadership Development as their top priority, with 100% rating it in their top 3.

In Part 2 of our Response, we provide Specific Actions you can take to upgrade your success potential. As in Part 1, we organize our comments around the four “common mistakes” raised by the Gurdjian, Halbeisen and Lane in their article. “Overlooking context”; “Decoupling reflections from real work”; “Under-estimating mind-sets”; and “Failure to measure results” have a profound impact on how Leadership Development is perceived and its effectiveness.

While there is no free lunch, here are specific actions you can take.

Specific Actions to Take to Maximize Leadership Development Success

1. Overlooking Context

A. Identify the organization culture of the leaders to be developed, and describe in a few words.

  • USA West Coast (process, avant-garde)
  • USA East Coast? (avoid “touchy-feely”)
  • USA Elsewhere?
  • Asian (broad context)?
  • Other?

B. Identify the organization level of the leaders to be developed.

  • First-line supervisors
  • Middle management
  • Upper management

C. Collect confidential stakeholder feedback on your Leadership Development program. Ask for value-laden comments like “game-changing”, or “not relevant” and encourage respondents to be honest. Since all of them may not be as enthusiastic about your program as you are, be prepared for some negative feedback.

  • Make a list of stakeholders
  • Select a data collection process: survey, group interview, or individual interviews

D. Test to see if formal policies can be made more flexible and adaptable. The “one size fits all” approach provides economy of scale, but it works best if organization members are essentially rubber-stamp copies of each other. However, smart phones, iPads, social media technology, “Facebook”, texting, and the values of the millennium generation all enhance individual differences.

  • Make a list of the Driving forces for more flexibility/adaptability
  • Make a list of the Restraining forces
  • Which is stronger?

2. Decoupling Reflections from Real Work

Avoiding Decoupling is easy to accomplish in theory, but much harder to do in practice because potential solutions require innovative thinking and may cost time and money

A. Focus on the Doing skills of Leadership and make sure that you distinguish Doing from Knowing. Knowing involves your experience, data, analysis,- the “what” of Leadership. Doing deals with the “how” of leadership (e.g. making phone calls, writing memos, facilitating discussions to implement a decision).

  • Make a list of the key Doing tools and recommendations in your Leadership Development program
  • Compare it with a list of Knowledge content in the program

B. Conduct a review session immediately at the training program end.

Collect this information (and note similarity to After Action Review):

  • What did we intend the participants to learn?
  • What “take-a-ways” do they report?
  • What changes do we need to make in the program?

C. Copy the way Medical Schools train their Interns, Supervising Physicians make “Rounds” in the hospital with their Interns to monitor, diagnose and treat patients. The Interns participate in the process and receive feedback.

  • How could competent leaders train subordinates in this manner?

D. Use the case method to teach leadership analytic and doing skills. This method presents the learner with a complex problem, a lot of highly nuanced data, and no right or best answer.

  • At what level do leaders in your organization face complex problems?
  • Do they have the cognitive skills to deal with complexity, ambiguity?
  • Can you produce a good case from the organization’s own situation?
  • Do you have access to a good graduate business school that has relevant cases, and programs or extension faculty?

E. Create a Leaders’ task force to resolve a critical organization problem.

In essence, the task force creates a case for the organization that it then has to solve. Typically, it would use a “divergent” thinking process (e.g. brainstorming) to create options, followed a “convergent” thinking process to explore, discover and debate best solutions.

  • Who would be the best participants for such a task force?
  • What would be its end product and timeline?
  • How much autonomy should the task force have?

3. Underestimating Mind-Sets

A. Reflect on “Holistic” vs. “Specific” thinking processes of participants in your Leadership Development program. “Specific” thinkers, dominant in US and Anglo-Saxon cultures, focus on specific things to observe and do, and tend to ignore the background as irrelevant. Conversely “Holistic” thinkers look at the bigger picture, all the interdependencies and relationships, and are common in East Asian cultures.

See the recent HBR Blog Are You a Holistic or a Specific Thinker?

  • Are you a Holistic or a Specific Thinker?
  • What is the mix between Specific and Holistic thinkers in your program?
  • Do you start with the micro (specifics), and then go to the macro (holistic) or vice versa?

B. Check the fit between leader’s style/skill, the procedure and the task.

Disaster can be the outcome if these three factors don’t match.

  • Write a brief description of the task, the procedure to be used, and the Leaders style and skill set; Are they consistent?
  • If not, what needs to change to make them consistent?
  • Will changing the coaching or training process solve the miss-match?

C. Be alert to issues of promoting/transferring a very successful leader The new role may have very different requirements for success.

  • What role and skills are different?
  • Does this Leader have adaptability/flexibility to make this change?
  • What training or coaching is needed?

D. Teach Critical Thinking or Analytic Thinking

One size fits all “do it this way” Leadership Training does not provide adequate preparation for the multiple points of view, clashing priorities, and multiple solution options of the real world. Critical/Analytic thinking training can expand leaders’ skills in dealing with the limitations of this “either-or” thinking..

  • How often do your senior Leaders encounter collaboration issues involving multiple frameworks, disciplines and cultures?
  • Do you have easy access to a competent trainer who teaches Critical/Analytic Thinking?
  • Do local MBA programs offer instruction or programs in this area?

E. Determine Learning Style of Your Leadership Program Participants

People vary greatly in their learning and problem-solving styles: conceptual vs. experiential, active vs. reflective, divergent vs. convergent: matching the Leadership program processes to participant styles will greatly improve their learning. While my experience is with the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, you can Google quick search and find many others.

  • What is the learning style profile of your participants?
  • What educational techniques will match that profile?

F. Match Participants’ Ability to Cope with Complexity and Ambiguity

The complexity and ambiguity in your Leadership program needs to match that of the participants. Too low will be boring; too high may be overwhelming. Kegan has created a 5 step hierarchy and Jaques and Schroder have created similar ones. A reference is H. M. Schroder “Human Information Processing”

  • What could you cut out to reduce complexity?
  • What would increase challenge and complexity?

4. Failing to Measure Results

A. Conduct an “After Action Review” after key seminars and initiatives

The process should involve all participants, focus on the learning process, be confidential, protect the participants, avoid a blame game, and be separate from the organization’s performance appraisal system. Write down answers to:

  • What did we intend?
  • What actually happened?
  • What can we learn from this experience?
  • Make a list of the Lesson’s Learned
  • What leadership development is needed?

B. Confirm the validity of your leadership survey in predicting results

If you use Leadership Style questionnaires:

  • Do they measure the key Leadership issues in your environment?
  • Has their validity in predicting results been established by Ph..D level Test & Measurement professionals?
  • Will the publisher make this validity data available to you?

C. Profile performance results from leadership development program

What have been the results from your leadership development program? Categorize as follows:

  • Unknown – no data
  • Negative
  • None
  • > 10%
  • > 20%
  • > 30%
  • > 40% and higher

D. Train all organization leaders at same time to avoid masking of results

Otherwise, the mixture of trained and untrained leaders may hide the true effectiveness of the Leadership Program.

  • How could you make it work in your organization?

E. Set performance improvement goals for leadership development

Establish realistic and attainable goals for individual programs and for your programs overall.

  • What are your goals? – quantify if possible


The foregoing sections of this Part 2 Response contain many Actions to Take to improve the effectiveness of your Leadership Development program.

There are 20 Action options to choose between. Please take your pick. Good luck!

Lessons Learned

  1. This Response to McKinsey has enabled me to step back, reflect, and articulate the evolving status and evolution of Leadership Development, a field that has been my focus for many years. I appreciate the opportunity.
  2. The four concerns identified by McKinsey as “common mistakes” collectively represent powerful forces limiting the effectiveness of Leadership Development. The core strengths of our organizations and institutions depend on the quality of their Leaders. Policies, politics or rhetoric won’t substitute for effective Leaders.
  3. We need stronger emphasis on the pragmatic, “facts on the ground” results on how our Leadership Development makes our organizations more effective. Claims of entertaining Activities simply are no substitute for verifiable Results.
  4. The field would benefit from closer association with academics in leading graduate business schools who focus on practical results. (See Information Age Publishing, Management Consulting and Organization Development & Change Divisions of the Academy of Management).

Jim Warren may be contacted at He also posts to the Belcon Industries Blog

Jim Warren

Jim Warren helps clients achieve higher performance by improving the integration of people, technology and management practices. His broad functional experience and focus allows him to cover the spectrum required of the COB, CEO, COO, or General Manager. He is the Director of the Center for Collaborative Management. Jim holds an undergraduate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Jim Warren may be contacted at He also posts to the Belcon Industries Blog

Posted in Leadership Development, Talent Management

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