Four Reasons Leadership Training Fails - And How to Fix It

Experiential learning is key for leaders, constant action, reflection and discussion!

Experiential learning is key for leaders, constant action, reflection and discussion!

Having skilled leaders in the right places can mean the difference between explosive growth and bankruptcy, and yet most of us roll our eyes at the thought of another leadership class or retreat.  Training the next generation of leaders is one of the toughest challenges companies face today.  Trainers need to find ways to help participants transfer learning back to real life.  If skill transfer is difficult in straightforward technical training, where people typically revert back to old habits shortly following classroom experiences, changing behavior in leaders seems almost impossible.  Still, we throw more than $24 billion dollars a year at leadership training, with marginal positive results.  Here are some reasons leadership training doesn’t work and some ways to fix it!

1. Leadership training is usually contrived.  How many conference rooms have you sat in trying to stay awake as an expert drones on about culture, while you wonder how you will get through all your emails that afternoon?  At least you can tune out that speaker. How many times you have drawn your “leadership river” or some other touchy-feely assignment that has no application to reality? Harvard Business Review  author Carlos Valdes-Dapena points out the absurdity of trends in team bonding as useless and frivolous activities soon forgotten.  We simply can’t plug into what’s going on when it isn't directly relevant to us or our immediate needs.  Instead, consider training that leverages the actual organizational goal, such as working in teams to find innovation opportunities and then running the new projects.  Experience is key!

Solving problems with real consequence drives real learning.

Solving problems with real consequence drives real learning.

2. Training offers specific skills for adaptive problems. This approach doesn’t make sense.  At Cairn, we love leadership because of its slippery nature.  No one has pinned down the definition of leadership yet, and every great leader operates a little differently.  Trainings that offer the ‘12 secrets to leading’ are not genuine. No twelve secrets universalize to every leader.  In their seminal HBR article, Heifetz and Laurie describe adaptive problems as not having any clear or correct answer as well as requiring personal and institutional change- think coping with the onset of AI or engaging the Millennial generation in leadership training!  Skills training is too narrow to offer information that generalizes to such broad and shifting challenges.  Try looking at leadership training as mindset shifting rather than skill building.

3. We can’t separate leadership and personal growth.  Not addressing the whole person in leadership training means you offer management training.  There isn’t anything wrong with that, but to grow better leaders, training must dig into all aspects of character.  Consider this, how can a leader inspire people without being fully invested? How can a leader make decisions without weighing in on emotional influences and personal experience?  A leader’s core functions cannot be separated from personal life, and yet the vast majority of training today does not address work life harmony, mindfulness, nutrition, fitness, and holistic health as ways to lead more effectively.  We recommend integrating your wellness program with your leadership development program!

4. Workshops don’t work.  Transfer of training for anything requires follow-up. True training impact comes with long-term coaching.  Particularly for topics as complex as leadership and human dynamics, your people have almost no chance of retaining new skills after a one-and-done workshop.  Leadership training requires a relationship, and should include coaching. Don’t waste money on training that doesn’t include at least a year of followup!

So how do we stop wasting money on ineffective training?  Here are some key aspects we believe in at Cairn Leadership.  

Challenge is central to all of our most important lessons and most cherished memories.

Challenge is central to all of our most important lessons and most cherished memories.

First, training has to be authentic and experiential.  Authentic experiences engage people, offer actionable and deep learning, and push participants outside their comfort zones.  We minimize the use of games and exercises in favor of outdoor adventures to create a realistic setting. When a leader ropes up to climb a rock face or sets up to belay his or her boss, things get real.  When things are ‘real,’ we emotionally engage- and that drives true learning. Social loafing goes away when a bad decision means an uncomfortable camping spot or an extra five miles of backpacking. In addition, these experiences offer outdoor recreation and life skills as well as new self-awareness.  Leaders can take their learning back to the boardroom as well as to family dinners. No leader will remember training performed inside his or her comfort zone, and yet the leadership development industry shies away from pushing the envelope for fear of losing clients. Great facilitators move leaders outside of their comfort zone while holding them out of their distress zone.  This sweet spot allows for maximal transfer of training, and that’s what you're paying for after all.

Great training addresses the whole person.  The executive coaching certificate program at Georgetown University hammered home the idea of Cura Pursonalis- care for the entire person.  Because great leadership comes from the depths of our character, training should at least in part address participants as whole people, not managers with a job description.  Furthermore, training that does not offer ways for a leader to become more physically, mentally and spiritually fit, misses a huge opportunity. All of our programs include a mindfulness aspect, highlight physical fitness by their very nature, and invoke spiritual growth through confronting fears and exposure to awe-inspiring wilderness.

Live well, lead well.

Live well, lead well.

Leadership is fundamentally about community, and training should be as well. A favorite quote from researchers Kouzes and Posner says it all, “Leadership is a relationship.” Not only do we offer follow-up leadership coaching after our experiences to support and hold leaders accountable to growth, we also build mini communities at each event.  Participants regularly take over our email groups to coordinate their own future adventures together, which to us is the whole point. We also facilitate monthly peer mentoring to continue kindling relationships of trust and mutual growth.   

It is clear that leadership training is critical to organizational success. A 24 billion dollar industry demonstrates a keen awareness of this fact.  However, a skill, or more correctly a way of being, as complex as leadership deserves more than a classroom workshop on communication. To truly help your leaders grow, use authentic experiences that address the whole person.  Find ways to make training either real time in the workplace or offer experiences that demand engagement. Help people get comfortable being uncomfortable. Finally, build communities for your leaders to thrive in and watch your organization thrive along with them!   

To learn more reach out for a complimentary discovery session with our coaches!

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