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How many articles have you read about investments in leadership development programs not producing any real impact? Unscientifically and idiosyncratically I can recall well meaning colleagues forwarding these (often great) articles (McKinsey, Deloitte/Bersin, HBR — I’m looking at you) to the HR team at least 2 to 3 times a year for the last 10 years… And they were all well-researched, well-written articles, often full of strong data and practical suggestions to improve. So, I want to say a whole hearted “thank you y’all!” There is honestly no sarcasm in the above. The problem is not the articles. The problem is this. When we try to measure the impact of a leadership development program it is often limited to one learning event: a week long program (possibly even world class in its ability to engage and inspire!); a 2 day workshop; a 3 module virtual class, etc. Trying to capture real behavior change as a result of these events is like trying to measure how much we recover from our illness by going to see the doctor. The analogy actually works quite well, so bear with me. And there is hope!

Imagine this. One day you don’t feel well, so you go to see your doctor. During the visit you have a very helpful and illuminating conversation with your doctor where you learn about your illness, it’s relationship to your habits, your prognosis and the actions you need to take to fully recover. You leave feeling educated, insightful and well cared for. But after the appointment, you don’t fill the prescription, you don’t take the recommended medication, you don’t make any diet or exercise changes, you don’t communicate the doctor’s advice to your family members, and you decide not have the recommended surgery. A few days later you assess if your symptoms have subsided as a result of speaking to your doctor… and unsurprisingly, you find “no, I still feel sick”. Therefore you conclude that your doctor is not effective in making you better.

Many organizations make the same mistake when trying to measure the effectiveness of their flagship/hi-profile leadership development program. The main event by itself should understandably have limited impact in changing and sustaining the new behaviors and mindsets you were hoping for. The event may have been exquisitely designed and delivered to provoke, awaken, provide insight, inspire, spur action, and build a cohesive spirit of “yes we can!” But no matter how hot and bright that flame burned during the event, it will quickly subside without the right support and follow through. I have seen even the strongest personal will to change succumb to the vortex of BAU (business as usual) and SOP (standard operating procedure) within mere weeks, if not days, of that moving learning experience.

I’m reminded of this really great and practical article about how to develop leaders better and faster. 4 Things that Develop Leaders Faster, written by James Eyring from Organisation Solutions, a researcher and expert in leadership and organization effectiveness whom I think very highly of. He pointed out that Insight alone is not enough. Leaders also need practice, challenge and support if they are to really change and grow. Additionally, if we are to see real payoffs from efforts to develop leaders we need to look at the whole thing using a systems lens. The reality is never a simple cause and effect — increase leaders’ skills causes rise in share price or NPS scores.

In order for leadership development programs to produce the results we want (and were promised by the program designers) we need to think of leadership development as an integrated plan of linked actions that could be anchored or kicked off by one keystone event; but crucially followed by the long tail of really hard and meticulous implementation work to ensure that leaders get the practice, challenge and support they need for the new behaviors to take hold. To do this we need to identify other aspects of the organization that impact whether our leaders can (opportunity) and want to (motivation) practice what they’ve learned. This work is not splashy or sexy. It will be slow; often one person or one team at a time. And the rewards, though humble, in the form of small wins and minor breakthroughs, are truly meaningful. If we persevere, we might actually see meaningful returns from the huge sums invested regularly by corporations in shaping leader capabilities.

So the next time we plan to measure the impact of a leadership development program, in addition to ensuring the program provides the relevant Insights, always also measure ourselves how well we do the following things:

For Practice:

How much did we help the leaders to practice what they learned?

What did we do to change the environment so that it motivates our leaders to try out these new mindsets, skills and behaviors?

For Challenge:

How effectively did we challenge our leaders to take their skills to the next level on a regular basis?

How clearly do we communicate the safe-to-fail sandbox to invite brave experimentation by everyone?

For Support:

Do we provide easy access to a broad array of robust and personalized support mechanisms to help each leader continue to learn, reflect and make sense of their experiences in their own way and at their own pace (e.g., coaching, mentoring, feedback, job taster, unique/passion project, personalized learning plan)?

So to get an “all thumbs up” rating for your leadership development ROI, you’ll need an “all thumbs up” for your next leadership development main event, PLUS an “all thumbs up” rating for each of the questions above.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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