The Ugly Truth about Most Leadership Development Programs

Leadership development is a noble and ennobling pursuit. Business experts, human resource leaders and consultants all advocate for creating powerful and effective leadership development programs.

It makes sense. With strong talent pipeline programs, an organization won’t be caught flat-footed when a high-ranking leader exits an organization. With someone ready to step in and fill the shoes, there’s a need for robust talent benches, ready to take the field when called upon.

Leadership Development Programs: Sending the Right Message

But the reality is, many leadership development programs wither and die on the vine. Despite evidence to the contrary, many organizations are loathe to shutter or rethink these programs, fearful of the message it might send. The truth is, if a leadership development program isn’t generating results and is ineffective, that credibility is already gone.

Why do such programs fail? McKinsey recently gave some compelling reasons why. Surprisingly the issue is not related to content. In fact, there are proven programs with robust talent proven to develop talent properly. So what is it, then, that causes missteps or failure? Here are a few reasons.

    • Setting the wrong assumptions. Often it’s not the content that derails these programs, but what surrounds them. One area is the lack of good communication and internal marketing about the programs. Often there is little to no communication about what the program will entail, what a participant’s responsibilities are, information about how participation will affect other work demands, or what completion means for future prospects within the company.

      Instead, the programs are shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Participants are pulled into a serious meeting with a supervisor or HR rep, are sheepishly told about the program, and encouraged “not to brag about it.” From the beginning, this mindset warps perceptions and efficacy.

    • Internal mindset. Often leaders of these programs adopt one of two mindsets. On the one hand, many overinflate the value or impact on the business without hard metrics that provide support. Instead of addressing ineffectiveness, they try to talk over the noise. The second track is to become apologetic or defensive about the program. The program is discussed in hushed tones without enough emphasis on results. In these scenarios, participants, and other employees expect too much or too little.
    • Too much theory. Often these programs are designed to create business theorists, not business practitioners. Participants need practical, real ways to practice their new-found tools. They also need to understand that there’s a safety net that will prevent them from plummeting too far.
    • Singularity. Sometimes, development programs look at developing technical skills or business savvy or behavioral coaching. In fact, the best programs nurture all three areas. A narrow focus creates one-dimensional leaders who are not prepared for the vast social, political and practical demands of the next level of work.

Leadership development can be a powerful way to empower great employees to be better, help the organization and strengthen the entire employee base.