3 Reasons Most Leadership Training Fails to Stick

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Back in 1991, near the start of my career, I was sent with some of my colleagues to a three-day process improvement workshop. (This was before Six Sigma but after TQM.)

The session wasn’t about leadership, but it had all the same features as a typical leadership workshop: we watched overhead presentations (this was before PowerPoint); read and analyzed case studies; wrote in our action planners; and, naturally, broke into small groups. (This was definitely after small groups. The small-group discussion has been around since Socrates and is a non-optional element of any corporate training program. When asked what he did for a living one of my colleagues in the learning industry used to say, “I work for a company that breaks people into small groups.”)

I mention this workshop not because it wasn’t well-designed or because it wasn’t enjoyable. In fact, I vaguely remember having a good time and picking up a few insights—but that’s just it: I have only vague memories of the session. I couldn’t tell you a single thing I learned. And I couldn’t have told you a month afterward, either, so we can’t simply blame my aging brain today.

There are three reasons why this kind of training tends to be so forgettable:

  1. It’s superficial.  Participants are sprayed with dozens of tips, tools, and tactics or perhaps dunked into a theory that was made up last month. Timely quickly becomes passé.
  2. It’s not challenging.  The assignments and activities are fluffy and there’s rarely a real critique of participants’ work. The only person evaluated, usually, is the instructor.
  3. It’s over and done.  The skills and concepts are covered for two or three days and then dropped—never to be reviewed, talked about, or used again.

Clearly, offering some sort of leadership training is good for business; every year, Bersin, ASTD, and many other research firms put out studies that show a positive correlation between the amount a company invests in leadership development and the financial results it gets. And, maybe that’s good enough. If training your leaders and managers correlates with a higher share price, why not do it? Obviously something is working, so why be concerned that most of the learning is forgotten in a week?

But I think we should be concerned, because if the learning is forgotten, then the boost to results is actually due to something we might purchase for a lot less—such as the team bonding that happens when you let people hang out together for a couple of days, or the rejuvenation that comes from some time away from the daily grind, or the positive feelings that can arise from watching inspirational videos. If the learning itself doesn’t stick, then a carefully designed, professionally facilitated class (whether face-to-face or virtual) is a waste of time and money.

Next week, I’ll look at some ways to ensure that leadership learning sinks in for good. Small groups may be involved.

What (if any) leadership training have you attended that was memorable—as in, you actually remembered what you learned and changed your behavior thereafter? What made it stick?

 

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About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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3 Responses to 3 Reasons Most Leadership Training Fails to Stick

  1. Steve Barry says:

    As a teenager I went to a high ropes course as part of a leadership development weekend. I remember every second of it – maybe because it was all probably 50 feet in the air (though it felt like 350 feet). Most of all, I remember jumping off the platform to a trapeze I was sure I would not catch, though I did. I remember yelling to the team on the ground, “Get ready to catch me!” It sticks with me for a few reasons. One is that it felt dangerous to me – my mind was on high alert. What’s interesting to me is that I don’t remember the trust falls stuff or the team work as well, perhaps because I already trusted the guys I went with. But maybe I didn’t trust myself, or believe in myself, as much. It taught me I was braver than I thought I was. That was more eye-opening for me and thus more memorable. The confidence that comes with overcoming any panic-inducing, seemingly impossible thing – whether it be a leap, a speech, singing a song in front of others, sharing an idea, presenting to the board the findings or an action learning project, whatever – I think that sticks. It changes behavior by breaking down barriers that may have prevented one from doing or saying something.

    • Steve Barry says:

      I should also mention that another reason it may have stuck is that I stayed with that team for several years after that experience and we continued to work together and challenge each other. We used that initial experience as a touchstone or foundation from which to build.

    • Interesting. Most rocks and ropes experiences (when done in the name of leadership development) are promoted as ways to build trust among various people. I’ve always been kind of skeptical about that. I mean, if I don’t already trust the people I’m with (as you did), I really don’t want them catching me as I fall 50 feet, hoisting me over walls, and whatnot. And if I DO trust them, well, great — let’s all go have a beer and forget the stupid ropes course! But I hadn’t thought about how these kinds of experience might help you trust your own self or believe in your own self. Great point.

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