Why do Leadership Development Programmes Fail?

Luxsiya Sivakumar
March 23, 2021

Effective leaders are vital for the success and sustainability of a business. They help drive change, empower their employees and improve staff performance. It is no surprise, then, that organisations spend millions of pounds developing their staff to become great leaders. In 2015 alone, the average learning and development spend per employee was £1,068 in the UK.

Learning and development usually takes the form of leadership development programmes, which can be loosely defined as any activity that aims to boost the capabilities and skills of leaders within a business. However, there is growing evidence that many leadership development programmes don’t succeed. To help you avoid these pitfalls, here are the six common reasons why leadership development programmes fail.

1) Not taking context into account

Leadership development programmes fail when little importance is placed on context. Many leadership development programmes take a generalist approach and rely on the assumption that one size fits all. This leads to ill-equipped leaders who may not have the relevant skills for the needs of their staff and organisation.

When selecting a leadership development programme for your organisation, it’s crucial to consider what your programme is actually for. It is also worth acknowledging which skills you’d like to develop among your leaders, and opting for a programme which specialises in those competencies. Essentially, a tailored approach that focuses on your business needs ultimately leads to more success in building your leaders.

2)  Dividing theory from real on-the-job practice

For years, many training programmes have struggled with striking a balance between theoretical training and real-life practice. Although theory-based sessions can be effective in providing a base level of knowledge, it becomes redundant if there are no opportunities for application in the workplace.

According to the McKinsey Report, “adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing.” At Circl, we offer a Leadership Development Programme that focuses on a unique experiential learning model. This programme gives business professionals the opportunity to coach underrepresented young adults, while also being coached on their real-life challenges and goals. This allows them to make progress on genuine, relevant issues. 

3) Underestimating the capacity to change

Being afraid to disrupt the status quo is another leading cause of why leadership development programmes fail. In order to grow and prosper as leaders, damaging behaviours and biases need to be addressed properly. Real change comes from transforming mindsets. However, many organisations are reluctant to address this, as it often involves uncomfortable conversations. As a result, they see poor results from their leadership development programmes. To really reap the benefits of a leadership development programme, organisations need to be ready to take the difficult road and learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.                           

4) Not teaching coaching skills

Traditional leadership often takes the form of command and control management, and this inevitably feeds into how leadership development programmes run. In recent years, the command and control approach has become problematic, as it often leaves employees feeling disrespected and worthless. There’s now a need for leadership development programmes to move towards a more person-centred solution.

This is where coaching comes in. The coach approach to leadership is increasingly being celebrated for its transformational impact on leaders and businesses, as it focuses on unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance. It also helps build accountability in the workplace. Organisations that adopt a strong coaching culture have witnessed improved productivity and greater engagement from their employees, demonstrating the importance of implementing coaching into leadership development programmes. 

5) Not promoting diversity

The lack of commitment to promote diversity is another driver in why leadership development programmes fail. Leadership roles are often occupied by elite, white men, which has a detrimental impact on an organisation’s culture and subsequently on its leadership development programmes. If there is a lack of diversity in the sphere of decision makers, organisations run the risk of overlooking the needs of employees who are from different backgrounds. At Circl, we aim to create a world where anyone can learn to lead, regardless of their background. We are advocates for diverse, empowering leaders and drive our mission by connecting underrepresented young adults with inspiring professionals from emerging and established businesses. 

6) Failing to measure results

Inadequate evaluation processes can hinder the success of leadership development programmes. Many organisations build frameworks which are solely centered around participant feedback. This runs the risk of keeping participants happy, but it doesn’t always create challenge or push participants to grow. In order to gain a more accurate representation of the impact of leadership development programmes, organisations must implement a 360-degree assessment framework as it allows them to get insights beyond the participants’.

As great leaders are the pinnacle of an organisation and its success, it is crucial to understand why leadership programmes fail - and how you can ensure success. It is clear that leadership programmes need to move away from an one-size fits-all approach that centres on theory and outdated principles, to one that transforms leadership through embracing diversity and coaching.

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