Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Leadership Training Doesn't Work, Does It?

I was reading another article this week arguing that leadership training doesn't work. I agree, but that doesn't mean it can't work.

Here are the reasons I see that the expenditure many companies make in leadership training doesn't yield the results they expect.

First, they invest in leadership training. Training helps people acquire knowledge. It doesn't mean the participant has the ability to apply that knowledge, or that the organization will allow it. I can pass on great information, you can take notes and memorize all of it, but if you cannot apply it in the workplace, it's useless. Training has to be supplemented with developmental activities and coaching. In other words, the participant has to have the opportunity to use what they learned and someone needs to provide some coaching in order for them to become proficient.

The next thing that keeps leadership training is that most of it is applied at the wrong level of the organization. Most leadership training is attended by senior managers. Yes, they need to know how to be better leaders. Yes, they have influence. The assumption is that if we teach the people at the top how to lead better, that knowledge will trickle down to the rest of the organization. Trickle-down leadership works about as well as trickle-down economics. As in, it doesn't.  The people with the most influence in an organization and who touch the most people are the first-line supervisors. They need the training (and accompanying development) most. That is the level at which better leadership skills will have the most impact. But we don't do much leadership training and development at that level. We use the school of hard knocks approach and keep trading out supervisors until one of them "gets it" quickly enough to perform satisfactorily before they get fired. (OK, off that soapbox for today.)

Lastly, almost all leadership training focuses on one person--the leader. Look at the picture at the top of post. What is wrong with that picture? I did a search for pictures of leaders, and this is one that came up. I am happy that at least some photos with women came up, but that's not the issue. The leader in this photo is at the front--large, in focus, and serious. One assumes the fuzzy little people behind her are her "followers." That's the fundamental problem with leadership training. It focuses too much on the leader. Leadership is a group activity. We don't spend enough time talking about how leadership functions in a group. Leadership is the art of influencing people to willingly work toward a common goal. And people are not one-size-fits-all. And people in a group (or team) are different than when they are alone. That's why it is so important that learners actually lead. The information they get in training gives them new tools to try. Practice allows them to become proficient. If they have a skilled coach, they'll become proficient faster, with less frustration.

Back to our original issue. No, leadership training by itself, doesn't show much return on investment. In order for it to pay off, you have to also invest in development and you have to spread the leadership training around the organization, especially those with the greatest touch in the organization--first-line supervisors.

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