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Why leadership development programs fail

Emma Weber

McKinsey & Company are prolific reviewers in the area of training and learning and they wrote an interesting article in 2010 where they found that only 25% of managers surveyed felt training programs measurably improved business results. This was followed up in 2014 when they looked into ‘Why leadership-development programs fail’.

A 2012 study found that almost $14 billion is invested annually by US companies on leadership development. According to CLO Media it is the no. 1 category in corporate learning and development spending. Yet, McKinsey confirm “around 30% of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities.”

The issue is clearly a sizeable one, with far reaching effects. It’s great that McKinsey have identified some of the most common mistakes made by businesses when it comes to successful leadership development – in my view though, they are light on the practical and ‘how to’ of solving the problem.

They suggest the problem of failing Leadership programs can be addressed by sidestepping four common mistakes – I’d like to tackle each of these in turn.

1. Overlooking context

I agree with many of the individual observations reported:

“Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another.”


“Too many training initiatives we come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all…”

Totally – a common mistake.

“In the earliest stages of planning a leadership initiative, companies should ask themselves a simple question: what, precisely, is this program for?”


“Context is as important for groups and individuals as it is for organizations as a whole: the best programs explicitly tailor a “from-to” path for each participant.”

Again, I agree.

However, I feel that the importance of context in respect of the individual, has been overlooked. I am not arguing that the points raised by McKinsey are not important, but I am surprised that more weight hasn’t been given to companies failing to properly consider the context of the individual employee in relation to leadership development.

In the context of learning more importance and emphasis needs to be paid to the individual. Companies need to look at each individual in their individual role, and identify their individual learning transfer needs, in order to meet the requirements of that role and effectively develop new leadership skills. Supporting the individual by holding them accountable to this change within the context of their role is what will then make the difference. So I feel McKinsey have overlooked an important question when it comes to overlooking context: what is the context of the individual attending in relation to the business objectives, right now?

2. Decoupling reflection from real work

The McKinsey approach here – and one which I see being used increasingly – is to set ‘projects’ that can be used to demonstrate and embed the learning. McKinsey site the need for this is because “burgeoning leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even the most powerful off-sire experiences into behaviour change on the front line.” Yes. This is very much the case, but why on earth create a ‘project’ that is outside of the person’s day-to-day role but is linked specifically to the learning with a business outcome? Why not use the participant’s current role to be reflected on and to form the core of the learning process?

The ‘project’ will inevitably come to a conclusion – and in most cases the learning or behavioural changes end with the project. Yes, they might have enhanced outcomes on ‘the project’ – meanwhile the day-to-day performance of the leader within the business unit remains exactly the same!

The only reason I can see as to why the current role isn’t used is because people haven’t found a way to ‘decouple the reflection from the work.’ I strongly argue that you need to create space for effective reflection, and by effective I mean reflection that is specific, structured and accountable, not mere navel gazing. Reflection is essential, creating space to decouple is essential – but it is also essential to keep the reflection and learning on the day job for leadership development programs to be a success, in a long term sustainable way.

3. Underestimating mind-sets

I was relieved to see this section coming in to the top four problem areas as to why leadership development programs fail to deliver. McKinsey have identified that “Becoming a more effective leader requires changing behaviour” but that “doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors and bosses”. Absolutely.

McKinsey demonstrates that behavioural change is required to transfer training from the classroom to the workplace. However, they have not covered how you create behavioural change post learning.

Behavioural change requires individuals to go below the surface to the thoughts, feelings, values and beliefs that drive their behaviour. I have personally seen the greatest results and outcomes for senior leadership programs when behavioural change is addressed via one on one sessions rather than group training, occurring over the phone with an unknown specialist. The telephone not only makes it a scalable solution, but it allows you to be anonymous, creating a level of intimacy and vulnerability difficult to reach face to face.

4. Failing to measure results

More often than not evaluating the success of Leadership Development programs falls into the too hard basket. People strive for an ROI or set KPIs that are so expensive to analyse in the context of leadership that they end up measuring nothing.

In my experience, what clients really want is NOT the measurement but tangible outcomes which can be used to prove whether the leadership initiative has worked or not. I would rather they put the energy into ensuring that the learning transfer and behavioural change actually happens. When clients see the change physically in front of them, they are less worried about the measurement.

That said – obviously if you can create some measures, then it will help increase company buy in.

For more about measures on leadership programs take a look at the work of Jack and Patti Philips.

At Lever, when we are considering measurement we typically create a ‘progress check in form’ to capture stories, wins and behavioural change 3 months after the program. You can use this to create a learning dashboard or case studies.

Standing side by side with McKinsey is not something I ever thought I would have the opportunity to do, but I truly believe that if you are talking about why leadership development programs are failing, the solution must include effective transfer of learning strategies to create behavioural change post learning. Studies show that only around 15% of learning finds its way back in to the workplace – but that an effective learning transfer strategy can boost results to as high as 88%. Surely Learning Transfer is part of the solution McKinsey?

Leadership is a key driver of performance – it’s an investment and should show returns the same as any other. Join me and industry experts Juliet Hammond and Suzanne Quentin in reviewing why leadership development has failed for so long, and what we can do about it. REGISTER FOR THE WEBINAR.


Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.