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How to Improve Your Leadership Development Program

Knight Campbell
January 20, 2024

The leadership development industry is in a sad state of affairs

Having skilled new 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 development program or retreat.

Leadership training for the next generation of leaders is one of the toughest challenges companies face today. Leadership development facilitators 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 to old habits shortly following classroom experiences, behavior changes for leaders seem almost impossible. Still, we collectively 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!

Leadership training is often 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? 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 leadership training that leverages the actual organizational goal, such as working in teams to practice innovative thinking before brainstorming for a new project. Experience is key!

Leadership Development offers specific skills for adaptive problems

This approach doesn’t make sense. We love leadership training because of its slippery nature. No one has or will pin down the definition of leadership yet because every great leader operates a little differently.

Leadership training that offers 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 issues that have no clear or correct answer and require personal and institutional change to move towards solutions. Think coping with the onset of AI or engaging the Millennial generation in leadership training!

Skills-based training is too narrow, offering flat information that can’t be applied to such broad and shifting challenges. Instead, try leadership training that teaches a skill through outdoor adventure or a race car driving experience to add excitement and real consequences for engagement. Be sure to give immediate feedback to new leaders for lasting results!

Leadership and personal growth are inseparable

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. At the very least, try integrating your wellness program with your leadership development program!

Single interventions 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 certified coaching. Don’t waste money on training that doesn’t include at least a year of follow-up!

How to create great leadership development programs

First, training has to be authentic and experiential. At our leadership adventures, we 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 the 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. 

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 for growth, but we also build a real community of professionals at each event. Participants regularly take over our email groups to coordinate their 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. 

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 emerging leaders get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Finally, build communities for your leaders to thrive in and watch your organization thrive along with them!

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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