Why leadership-development programs fail

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been seeing headlines about leadership development programs – unfortunately, the headlines are not that great:

The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails
10 Reasons Leadership Development Programs Fail
Why Leadership Development Programs Fail
5 Reasons Leadership Development Programs Fail
Why So Many Leadership Programs Fail
Why Leadership Development Efforts Fail

I’m sure you get the picture (fail). Leadership development is hard (fail). It’s tough being a leader (fail). My favorite was an article that gave me the #1 reason why leadership development fails and then gave me 20 things to focus on to ensure success. I kind of thought if I focused on the #1 reason I might be okay.

I have to admit, these articles made me frustrated. I felt like there was a lot of blame being placed on the fact that development was just plain hard, but also a lot of blame placed at the feet of people like myself who create different kinds of development programs. As I looked through the list of reasons for failure, however, I realized something. If a leadership development program fails, it might have something to do with the participants as well! WHAT??

Let me explain. We could build the best leadership development program in the world – the exact skills needed as discovered through a needs analysis; skills tied to business objectives; a perfect implementation plan; metrics that truly measure the bottom line impact of the program – you get the picture. BUT, there is still something missing in this perfect program.

You…and maybe your manager.

I believe that you have to take ownership of any development opportunity in which you partake. What does it mean to take ownership? Glad you asked! To me, ownership looks like this:

You take responsibility for your development. Remember making a Christmas list when you were a kid. Santa didn’t know what you wanted unless you wrote it down and mailed it to the North Pole. Your manager is Santa – you have to write down what you want and let your manager know. They can help provide the toys tools, but it’s up to you to determine which tools you need and what you will do with them.
You ‘personalize’ your development. Your development plan is uniquely yours, and any program you attend should align with that plan. When attending a development program, you should spend some time prior to the program thinking about your expectations and what you want to learn. During the program, compare what you’re learning to your expectations to make sure they align. Work with your manage before and after a program to reinforce what you learned. By focusing on your plan, you can make sure that your needs are met.
You have to be humble. You sign up for a development program because you want to learn something. That means there is something you don’t already know. Everyone in the room is in the same position, so there’s no need to prove that you’re the smartest person there.
You have to have a “right” mindset. A development program is not a five-day, expense-paid vacation away from the office – it is your company’s investment in you and the skills you bring to the company and your team. Your job is to be present at the program by turning off your devices and concentrating on your investment. Use your breaks to check email or take calls.
You should expect the support you ask for. Have a conversation with your manager to discuss the support that you might need before, during and after a program. Maybe you want to discuss expectations about a development opportunity. Maybe you need your manager to not call you or email you ten times in an hour while you’re in class. Maybe you want an opinion of how you’re changing your behavior three weeks after the program. All of these are valid needs, and, if you’re willing to have that conversation with your manager, you should be able to expect that support. After all, improving your leadership skills also helps your manager.

So there you have it – five things you can do to make a leadership development program (or any development program) more successful.

As a leadership development consultant, my job is to create the best possible program that gives you the core knowledge and skills you need to do your job; as a program participant, your job is to spend the time and energy needed to plan your development and apply the knowledge and skills of any program to your individual plan.

As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.