Leadership training
Management & Mindset

Your Approach to Leadership Training is Broken—Here’s How to Fix It

You've invested in traditional leadership training, but the people you promoted to management still feel overwhelmed and under prepared, and their teams can sense their new manager is inexperienced and under-equipped.

You're not alone. Traditional leadership training models don't have an excellent track record for helping organizations develop great leaders. These lackluster development programs are too generic, too theoretical, and quite frankly, too boring to have a substantial impact.

There are more effective ways to develop leaders inside your organization. For example, turning your focus to continuous, bespoke employee training rather than relying on standard, checklist-style instruction will produce better, more influential leaders who will create long-lasting, positive change inside your organization.

Where traditional leadership training goes wrong

Every year, companies invest millions in corporate training designed to develop new leaders, but much of it is a waste of time and money.

As mentioned above, much of traditional leadership training is based on an antiquated model of authoritarian leadership, where everything is managed from the top down. That approach flies in the face of today's business structures, in which organizations are increasingly flat and cross-functional. If you're not training for the 21st-century workplace, you'll be stuck with leaders who don't have the right skills to manage their teams.

Traditional leadership development programs are outdated and rarely translate into better performance because they leave many gaps. For example, expensive MBA programs focus on hard skills like business economics and finance, but they miss soft skills like coaching and developing direct reports. One-and-done workshops and "boot camps" promise mastery of a handful of business concepts over one or two days, but they can barely scratch the surface of the complexities involved in leading a team. The reality is, it takes a lot more than a single course over a couple of days to become a great leader.

Some leadership training programs don't include lessons for managing real-world work challenges. Instead, they waste time by focusing on simple exercises that can't be directly applied in the workplace. For example, classic team-building activities have their place, but they don't translate into skills that can be used to manage a team.

Related: Broken…or Just Bruised? Why Traditional Executive Education is Struggling, and How the Right Program Can Help Fix It

The true cost of choosing the wrong type of leadership training

Investing in inadequate training isn't great for your company's bottom line, but what's even more damaging is sending ill-equipped leaders into the fray where they can make bad decisions, damage morale, and create a toxic culture. Poor performance from leaders can also cancel out the positive effects of your health and wellness programs by making employees unhappy and creating stress that adversely affects their well-being.

If you fail to provide your leaders with training that helps them grow their skills, you're much more likely to lose them. One study found that employees who don't believe they can reach their professional objectives are 12 times more likely to consider quitting than employees who think they can accomplish their goals.

Your company will have to contend with an increasing number of skill gaps in your workforce in the near future. If you don't have adequately trained leaders in place to develop and upskill their direct reports, you are jeopardizing your company's long-term success.

The right way to cultivate leadership inside your organization

Leadership training needs to be tailored to your organization's precise needs. Transforming your training by taking an ongoing, collaborative approach creates leaders who are better prepared to manage and ensures your learning programs are a good fit for the pace and people inside your organization.

Josh Bersin's 4 E's of Leadership Development provides a framework that can help you rethink your approach to leadership training:

  1. Education—your leaders need to know the basic principles of your business, how to set goals, and develop people.
  2. Experience—learning how to lead by actually doing it leads to improved performance each time the cycle is completed.
  3. Exposure—valuable leadership lessons can be learned by watching others guide employees, talking to other leaders, and receiving feedback.
  4. Evaluation—every new leader can benefit from regular coaching, peer reviews, and objective counsel.

Employing the above framework and pairing it with the methods below can help you create a robust training program that satisfies everyone in your organization's needs.

Launch a mentoring program

Mentorship is an extremely effective method for developing excellent leaders. It gives emerging leaders the tools they need to succeed by helping them understand what it takes to manage your organization. It also contributes to a happier culture—a study showed that 91% of workers who have a mentor are satisfied with their jobs and believe that they're valued members of their organization.

Having a trusted mentor can remove much of the guesswork involved in becoming a leader. By exposing burgeoning leaders to mentoring, they get experience, guidance, and feedback that prepares them to manage teams. More experienced leaders can show mentees what outstanding leadership looks like and hone soft skills like communication and problem-solving.

Mentoring is particularly good for addressing gray areas and complex situations. Leaders won't find the answers to their problems by performing a simple Google search, so providing access to someone with lived experience who can answer specific questions is extremely valuable.

Related: The What, Why, and How of Mentorship Programs at Work

Mentoring is particularly good for addressing gray areas and complex situations.

Use Collaborative Learning tools to create training relevant content

You can leverage and preserve your institutional knowledge by bringing your own team members in to assist you with training. Harness your existing leaders’ expertise by building training content that dives deep into the complex issues and unique situations they have to navigate as part of their job.

One-to-many training complements other methods like mentoring by focusing on hard skills and specific processes inside your company. If your internal programs are built by your teams, you solve traditional training's problems of being non-specific and too theoretical.

If you're concerned your current internal training may be too generic, you can lean on collaborative course creation. Collaborative Learning empowers your leaders and soon-to-be leaders by giving them the power to custom-create training programs that anyone inside your organization can use.

Collaborative Learning is a training methodology where employees share their knowledge and expertise while learning from each other at the same time. It's an excellent tool for leadership training because it creates a positive atmosphere where team members are continually working together while gaining essential skills.

Collaborative Learning can also improve your culture by creating a safer atmosphere—employees have reported a feeling of greater psychological safety at work when they routinely share information and develop relationships with other team members.

Create a culture of never-ending learning

To create a culture where people stay for the long haul and feel valued, treat training as an ongoing process, not a one-time initiative. Making learning a priority will drive personal and business growth and help you keep people in your organization for longer periods of time.

Convincing employees to make time for learning can be a huge challenge. Still, you can make it part of your company's DNA by building learning opportunities into weekly or even daily activities. A great way to lower resistance is to include training as part of your onboarding process, so you can establish a culture of learning from day one.

Everyone inside your organization needs to be involved in creating your new learning culture. Some managers and executives may resist the idea of shifting time away from their direct report's job duties so they can participate in training, so it's vital to help your whole team understand the specific benefits of your development program.

Evaluate your existing training

Rolling up your sleeves and conducting a leadership training audit can put your programs back on track. This process will expose the strengths and weaknesses of your current training and help you create more comprehensive and effective programs.

A great place to start a training audit is by conducting a skills gap analysis. This type of audit will uncover the gaps between what you're teaching your leaders and the skills they need to manage their teams effectively. While you're conducting your audit, take the time to connect with both leadership candidates and leaders who've gone through your existing training. Find out which hard and soft skills these team members rely on most often and what type of training would help them confidently rise to the next level.

Related: Classic Management Training is Failing Your Employees—Here’s What They Need Instead

Pilot a small-scale leadership training program to secure buy-in

Your executives may be resistant to change, even if it means they're missing out on the benefits that a new leadership training program would bring. The C-suite may have bought into the promise of traditional training, or they may just be too risk-averse to agree to major updates or changes.

If you experience resistance, start small and build initiative from the ground up—use the methods above to develop leadership training for a single team or create an ongoing mentorship program for a subset of employees. Then, while you're building a groundswell of support inside your ranks, collect and present data that shows how your new training initiatives tie into your company's goals and mission and explain your plan for mitigating risks.