Why Leadership Training Fails – and what to do about it

Dr Brett HeywardNews

Beer,  M., Finnstrom, M. and Schrader, D., “Why Leadership Training Fails – and what to do about it,” Harvard Business Review, October 2016.


You know it in your gut. You’ve experienced it on several occasions – the blush of undergoing a leadership intensive, only to return to the workplace, and find yourself slipping back into the habits of a lifetime –  the “same ol’; same ol’.”  You know there is a better way, but you can’t muster what it takes to make it happen.

Veteran Harvard luminary, Michael Beer, and his fellow researchers, Finnstrom and Schrader nail “what goes wrong with leadership training” with this recent addition to the Harvard Business Review stable.

It mightn’t come as a too much of a shock to you, but to see the reasons why leadership training exercises fail, is a little confronting to someone who has devoted much of his life to classroom-based leadership activities.

Beer and Co. identify six “silent killers” of leadership training, by setting out the key factors that need to be in place for leadership training to succeed.  Without these factors being in place, the chances of a successful leadership development activity taking hold are incredibly slim.  The key factors needed to support leadership training are:

  1. The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction.
  2. After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.
  3. Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design.
  4. The organization adds training where needed.
  5. Success in changing behavior is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
  6. Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behavior.

Have I been living a lie for most of my professional life? Or, maybe, I’ve been a little too harsh on myself?  My research and professional career has taught me that leadership training by itself does little to change an individual, unless she/he is willing to address the barriers to transformational change within their own organisation.

Training is just one ingredient in a bottom-up, top-down, organisation overhaul that needs to occur in order to achieve a successful, organisation-wide, turn around in performance.  Moreover, any step to inculcate senior leaders with new ideas and approaches to leadership, without the “at the shoulder support” from a highly-skilled organisation development specialist, runs a significant risk of crashing on the rocks of change.  As the article highlights, coaching from a qualified specialist is critical in order to translate new learnings into changed behaviours.  This factor, along with removing the barriers to successful change (eg. Poor strategic direction and positive role modelling from the entire executive team), increases the chances of success, exponentially. The message is simple: if you’re investing in leadership courses, and you’re not investing in executive coaching at the same time, you’re doing it wrong!

Dr Brett Heyward, Adjunct Professor, QUT Graduate School of Business and Consulting Partner, AffinitasODI

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