Why Leadership Development Programs Fail

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

by Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane from McKinsey Quarterly – Jan 2014
This article puts forward a straightforward – and to some extent simplistic – approach to the challenges of designing and delivering leadership training.  It does however cite interesting real-life examples of what went well and where mistakes were made.
The authors summarise the four most common mistakes as:
–    Overlooking context.
–    De-coupling reflection from real work.
–    Underestimating mind-sets.
–    Failing to measure results.
But it is the “de-coupling” that has sparked the most discussion within MTP.  Whilst it is agreed that working on real-life projects is key to successful transfer of learning, benefits can only be maximised when there is top management commitment during project selection and later during implementation and follow-up.  We have a number of clients who have managed this exceptionally well, despite both the real and perceived difficulties of doing so; the time, effort and associated expense should not be underestimated.
Another area of interest to us was the section on “mind sets” and the need for lasting behaviour change.  Where the article describes the senior managers in a professional services business as being uncomfortable once discussions moved away from their functional expertise, the article does not say what were the “concrete steps” that led to the necessary change.  We would argue that specific business training (particularly financial acumen) works well in these types of situations, alongside more traditional leadership and behavioural skills programmes.  Certainly, the example given of sales managers committing to unprofitable contracts despite attending a generic finance course rings true.  Whilst the article describes the “control tower” that eventually led to lasting improvement, it seems to us that a better defined and tailored finance course, providing appropriate analytical tools, would have worked better.
To summarise then, an interesting article for anyone new to management learning with some thought-provoking examples that may apply in your particular business.  The article is unlikely to bring any new insights to an experienced practitioner however, and the lack of specific company names adds to the somewhat theoretical feel and simplistic conclusions.

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