When Leadership Training Fails

When the economy is good, many companies spend on training and “upgrading”. Many of these trainings go into bringing out leadership in managing teams. While that sentence is errounosly put together, it is a true reflection of many companies today. HBR’s article on “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It” by Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström & Derek Schrader highlights what is really wrong and how it needs to change.

The Problem

Corporations are victims of the great training robbery. American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.

For a whole week they engaged in numerous tasks that required teamwork, and they received real-time feedback on both individual and group behavior. The program ended with a plan for taking the learning back into the organization.

A couple of years later, when a new general manager came in to lead the division, he requested an assessment of the costly program. As it turned out, managers thought little had changed as a result of the training, even though it had been inspiring at the time. They found it impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organizational barriers: a lack of strategic clarity, the previous GM’s top-down style, a politically charged environment, and cross-functional conflict.

Companies that tried to launch major transformations by training hundreds or thousands of employees across many units to behave differently lagged the only company (in a sample of six) that didn’t kick-start its transformation this way. The problem was that even well-trained and motivated employees could not apply their new knowledge and skills when they returned to their units, which were entrenched in established ways of doing things. In short, the individuals had less power to change the system surrounding them than that system had to shape them.

The Need to Change & Questions For Change

Even in companies with strong leaders and healthy cultures, discrete units require distinctive roles, responsibilities, and relationships—and distinctive capabilities to function in them. Moreover, each unit is probably at a different stage in its development. So CEOs and their HR chiefs must be sensitive to local variables when defining an integrated change agenda—one that simultaneously addresses performance improvement and capability development. To do that, they should answer the following questions, first at the top and then in each major unit:

  • Is the leadership team aligned around a clear, inspiring strategy and set of values?
  • Has the team collected unvarnished employee feedback about barriers to effectiveness and performance—including senior managers’ own behavior?
  • Has the team redesigned its organization, management systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by that diagnosis?
  • Is HR offering consulting and coaching to help employees learn on the job so that they can practice the new attitudes and behaviors required of them?
  • Do corporate training programs properly support the change agenda, and will each unit’s leadership and culture provide fertile ground for it?

Read more here


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