Understanding the Pitfalls of Traditional Leadership Development Training
- Does your organization provide periodic in-house leadership training that is developed and delivered by senior staff?
- Does your organization rely on on-the-job-training to develop leaders?
- Does your organization give employees an opportunity to select online training?
Interviews with technical leaders show that most training programs fit into one of these models. However, even those with in-house programs are likely to waste time and money. Why? Because they are either hoping that lessons will be learned, or they are focused on delivering content. Content-based training is an old-school approach unlikely to yield real impact.
How do I know? Because previously, I focused on delivering great content. But delivering great content misses the point. Leadership development is about applied learning that lasts. When I shifted to applied learning techniques, I saw increased impact, transformed behavior and lasting change.
It began with a footnote. I’m not one to read footnotes but this one caught my attention. The foot note was to L. Dee Fink’s book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Fink’s approach starts with the question, “One year after this training, the participants will be able to …..” In one statement, Fink brilliantly shifts attention to both behavior change and retention.
Think about it. You intend for your leadership development programs to shift behavior and last. However, when you really examine results, at best you get small, short-term changes. After a couple of weeks everyone returns to earlier behaviors. What have you really accomplished with your training time and money? Not much.
How do you assess and revise your program to pay off rather than waste time?
Two basic principles are fundamental to successful retained learning. If your training misses either, you are not getting the value you need from your leadership development.
I. Shift from delivering content to enabling behavior change
Even great content can be forgettable if delivered in an old instructional style. You know that your program is content driven when the instructor says, “Next, we’ll cover….”, or “we have a lot of content to get through.” The learning-focused instructor says, “Next, you’ll learn to apply….”, or “how would you apply these principles in your work?” Hear the emphasis on using knowledge in a real application. Application is the foundation for behavior change.
Drawing from Fink, these three steps shift from content to behavior change.
A. Define behavior goals. What behavior will you observe when successful? For example: “The participant will be able to engage in difficult conversations without procrastination and with successful outcomes for all.
B. Identify foundational knowledge needed to support the behavior change. Foundational knowledge includes listening, self-management, empathy, and the ability to adapt communication styles.
C. Determine metrics. How will you know they can execute the behavior change? What exercises provide practice in the application of foundational knowledge? The class may discuss approaches to a difficult conversation, write their own script for a real encounter, do mock discussions in class, and commit to one real conversation in the workplace.
When my instructional design switched to applied behavior change, I discovered students’ true level of learning (which was less than indicated by quizzes that regurgitate facts), actual student learning increased, and their confidence soared through application.
II. Shift from one-and-done training to retained, long-term learning.
Rarely does new learning embed in the brain after one course. Learning takes practice, but most training isn’t designed to support the long-term. There are, however, several strategies that, when designed into leadership programs increase retention.
A. Design training to be memorable. Memory is enabled with application-based training (rather than “stand and deliver”), use of compelling visuals, and interactive, tactile exercises. For example,, participants assemble a small cardboard box, put the names of “difficult” people inside the box, seal it and write the nasty labels that they’d like to use on the box. And they feel terrible afterward. That feeling is the motivation to learn techniques for difficult discussions that open the box. They practice conversations in class to build skill and confidence.
B. Provide time to reflect. The brain embeds memory better if there is time to digest new information and consolidate information that is most relevant to the individual. At the end of the program, participants are given time to write down the top three take-aways that they want to apply to their work.
C. Create follow-up activities as reminders. The brain is lazy and needs reminders to practice a new behavior. Reminders can be a simple drip email campaign on key applications. Homework assignments with follow-up are also useful.
Leadership training whether in-house or outsourced is a huge investment in time and money. Assess your training for application and retention to ensure you get the impact you expect. If you aren’t convinced that your program can avoid the pitfalls of traditional leadership development, contact us to create a solution that will.
I started with a footnote and I’ll end with a footnote. For more information about excellence in learning design see:
- Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L.Dee Fink
- How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose and others
- The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model by David Rock and others