Leadership Development Is Coming Up Short – Here’s Why

Written for TD.org by Scott Bohannon, CEO

Have you ever tried to start a new diet? You do your research, you put together a grocery list the length of a novel, you may even buy a new cookbook for inspiration. You head to the store with high hopes, stock up on all the specialty items you need to make this work, and you dive right in. For the first week, you’re cooking with gas – literally and figuratively. You’re eating better, you feel great, and you’re putting all your new learnings to work. But over time, you slip back into old patterns: you’re buying items from your old grocery list and at home you’re whipping up quick & easy old meals. All the research, the hundreds of dollars spent on kale and kombucha, the new recipes and behaviors you learned – poof, replaced with old habits in seconds. 

This same phenomenon is happening in the leadership development industry. Despite our best efforts, we can’t expect more than 1-in-3 learners to apply the new behaviors they’ve learned for more than a year.  And while one out of three is better than none out of three, the lack of success creates a huge opportunity cost for those who don’t change. 

Where is leadership development coming up short? 

To start, let’s consider a few statistics around leadership development programs in the digital age: 

  • A 2018 HBR Survey found that only 33% of respondents felt that they have become more effective as managers after taking part in development programs. 
  • Research from Gartner (formerly CEB) found that only 13% of senior executives have confidence in rising leaders at their firms. 
  • When an upward 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, almost thirds identified leadership development as the top concern. 
  • Around 30% of U.S. based companies admit that they have failed to fully exploit international opportunities because they lack leaders with the right capabilities. 

Talent professionals and executives alike are aware of the troubling statistics. Although new leadership behaviors are being taught, and in turn learned by those who attend the programs, said behaviors are not being practiced once the individual re-enters the workplace.  

This persistent challenge has prompted us to ask the question: why aren’t participants practicing these behaviors when they return to their jobs? We’re providing them with skills, knowledge, understanding, and desire to change, and yet they quickly revert back to their old ways. What’s going on? 

Our research shows that, best case scenario, one out of three learners will adopt new behaviors after participating in a course, but that figure is more likely one in ten.  

We’re not lazy, our brains are 

The root cause of the problem is that our brain forms habit around a lot of our leadership behaviors in order to focus its limited energy on immediately pressing activities. These habits are triggered by our work environment without even thinking about them – hence why we call them habits. So you go take a course, you pick up some new behaviors, you understand them, you get why they’re important and you really want to do them and then you go back to your normal work environment and you don’t even notice the opportunities to apply what you’ve learned. Your environment is triggering old habits. 

So what now? 

Like with diets, in order to sustain the weight loss, we have to enable the adoption of new behaviors. The same theory applies if we want to sustain changes in our leadership behaviors. We have to modify our environment and our habits so that they support the behaviors we want rather than the habits we’ve formed in the past. 

So the question is: how do we do that? Stay tuned for our next installment on the blog! 

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