female leader intimidating her team

Demystifying Why Leadership Development Often Fails

Written By: Rich Mesch

January 2, 2024 – 7 min read

Companies spend billions on leadership development every year. In fact, according to Future Market Insights, roughly $60 billion is spent globally every year with the goal of transforming managers into extraordinary leaders. Despite all of the time, money, and resources devoted to leadership development, the hard truth is that many leadership development programs often fail. In this article, I’ll explore the reasons for mediocre outcomes and provide some insights into how you can improve program effectiveness.

Misaligned Expectations

Companies often bump folks up to leadership positions as a natural career progression without considering their readiness or interest, assuming that great individual contributors will automatically be great leaders. However, this assumption often falls short. Employees might enter leadership positions for career advancement rather than a passion or interest for leading teams. Leadership promotions can feel like the only way to progress your career, but they don’t always align with an individual’s goals or abilities, leading to dissatisfaction among employees who are ill-prepared for managerial responsibilities they neither desire nor are equipped for.

Not Recognizing the Knowing-Doing Gap

Let’s face it: a lot of new leader readiness programs don’t do enough to prepare leaders for the realities of the job. Many programs are very “training” focused, as if training itself is enough to create a great leader. The problem isn’t the training itself. The issue is that it often stops there, with no real system in place to drive sustained behavior change. 

The “knowing-doing gap” refers to the disparity between what individuals know they should do and what they actually do in practice. This gap exists despite possessing the knowledge, information, or understanding of the right actions or strategies learned in training. 

The “knowing-doing gap” refers to the disparity between what individuals know they should do and what they actually do in practice. This gap exists despite possessing the knowledge, information, or understanding of the right actions or strategies learned in training.

I remember a new manager telling me a story. He said, “I had to give feedback to someone on being a poor performer and tell them they needed to up their game. I had studied all the feedback models and was ready to go. I brought him into my office, and we sat down. As soon as I started talking, he began to cry. Suddenly, all my training had gone out the window because nobody trained me on what to do when someone starts crying.”

That’s the knowing-doing gap in action.

What contributes to the knowing-doing gap?

Many of us know how to do things we don’t take action on, from that commitment to work out every morning to writing that great novel to reading that book a colleague recommended on leadership. So, why does the knowing-doing gap exist?

  • Lack of Implementation Strategies: Often, there’s a missing component that translates knowledge or ideas into actionable plans.
  • Ineffective Leadership: Lack of clear direction, support, or alignment from leadership can hinder executing plans or ideas.
  • Complexity of Systems or Procedures: Sometimes, systems and processes meant to help create chaos instead of aiding performance.
  • Resource Constraints: A lack of resources, including time, money, or personnel, can prevent effective action.
  • Resistance to Change: It’s normal human behavior to sometimes resist change. Even if individuals or organizations have the knowledge, they might be hesitant to implement changes due to fear of the unknown or reluctance to leave familiar practices behind.

It’s not just about training; we need a culture that promotes continuous learning and holds everyone accountable. It’s up to the ‘leader of leaders’ to walk the talk outside the classroom.

Not Modeling and Adopting a “Get-Better” Culture

A “get-better” culture focuses on continuous improvement. And ironically, successful organizations often struggle with a get-better culture. It’s easy to prioritize improvement when an organization is missing its goals. Successful organizations can become complacent and convinced they must be doing everything right.

Effective leaders understand that their duties extend beyond steering the business; they also include nurturing talent and establishing an environment conducive to individual growth. Continuous coaching and feedback are the cornerstones of a get-better culture at all organizational levels.

Too often, the most effective individual contributor becomes the team manager, and coaching is reduced to “telling,” where the new manager proceeds to explain why they were so successful. Telling people how to behave is not coaching; coaching is about setting goals and supporting your team to find a path to those goals.

Failing to Measure Leadership Effectiveness

Ever hear the saying, “What gets measured gets managed”? Failing to measure leadership effectiveness is what often makes these development programs stumble. Without metrics or assessment criteria, it’s hard to gauge their impact and your ROI. It’s like shooting in the dark. If we don’t turn on the lights, we won’t be sure if we’re hitting our target or, in this case, if these programs are making any difference. Companies need measurable benchmarks to identify the strategies that are effective and those that need improvement. 

What to Measure

But how do you measure something as seemingly intangible as leadership effectiveness? You might think, just measure the results of their team. But is that a true measurement of their leadership? Maybe. Some teams may be successful despite poor leadership due to other factors, such as improved resources (staffing, technology, etc.), so isolating this metric may not give you the full picture.

Look at Leading Indicators

Leading indicators are metrics you can measure in the short term and may offer insights into possible shifts or developments before their actual occurrence. Leading indicators help leaders evaluate whether things are moving in the right direction, enabling them to anticipate changes, make well-informed decisions, and take actions aimed at positively shaping future outcomes.

For example, if people are more satisfied with their jobs, then the odds are good that your long-term retention metrics will start looking better.

So, to me, the very best metric you’re always going to have is input from the people on the team and what they’re experiencing with their leaders on a daily basis. You obtain these by:

  • Soliciting direct feedback from the leader’s team by asking questions like:
    • Do you meet 1:1 with your manager regularly?
    • Do you have goals set?
    • Do you have what you need to be successful?
  • Soliciting direct feedback from the leader’s manager.
    • The leader’s manager should have some idea of how they’re doing, both anecdotally and observationally.

Thinking of Leadership Development as a One and Done Activity 

Companies should abandon the notion that leadership development is a one-time event. It puts a level of stress on people that they’re expected to be perfect after they leave that one-and-done workshop. Leadership is a learning process and a journey that may encompass an entire career, and you’re going to make mistakes.

In Conclusion

Moving from an individual contributor to a leader is a gradual process. While a leadership development training workshop might kickstart this process, it shouldn’t end there. In fact, what happens after that initial workshop is what really matters. Successful leadership development hinges on accountability and consistently executing critical success factors. These factors include an unwavering commitment to continuous learning, embracing quality coaching and feedback, and implementing effective measurement mechanisms to gauge progress.

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