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How to make leadership training more effective


Chaos theory maintains that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can starts a chain of events that leads to a hurricane elsewhere. If only this Butterfly Effect could be applied to a company's expenditure on leadership training, where frequently large sums of money seem to result in little or no direct bottom-line benefits.

Indeed, people are so conditioned to expect little that no one batted an eyelid when a course leader recently began by informing the group that they would only remember 20% of everything they would be told a week after the course finished. Yet isn't this something that should anger you? Put another way, it means that 80% of the cost of the course and the time of the delegates is wasted.


The fact that the training companies and management schools do not appear to be short of business suggests either that these ratios are considered acceptable, or that people are not aware of viable alternatives. I do not find it acceptable, and there is indeed an alternative approach.

First, what is going wrong? Nice as it would be to blame the teachers or their material, the truth is that I have rarely attended a course where the course leader did anything less than an excellent job. No, the problem lies with attendees, in that their capacity to ignore and forget vastly exceeds their capacity to listen, remember and apply. Addressing this requires an understanding of three key issues; mindset, relevance and habits:

Mindset means that human minds operate like the child's toy where round pegs go through round holes. The great economist and writer J.K.Galbraith once said that 'Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof'.

As a fun way of testing this, next time you are with a group of people, ask them to briefly look around the room and count how many red things they can see. Then ask them to close their eyes and name some of the blue objects in the room. The chances are that they will struggle to name more than a handful, even though their eyes obviously saw them. What happens is that, in asking our brain to look for red objects, we automatically programme the brain to reject objects of other colours.

The lesson here is that before a training course or workshop, attendees need to programme their brains to be receptive to the information that will be provided. Simply walking in off the street is not good enough – some preparation is needed.

Relevance is equally important. Having conditioned your brain to accept information, you then need to find a use for the latter. If the brain cannot find a use for it, the information will quickly be discarded.

For example, how many times have you heard the safety talk that the cabin crew give at the start of a flight? If you're like me, you know you should listen, but the fact is that, if you thought that the plane was going to crash, you wouldn't have got on in the first place (not that I'm recommending you to ignore the talk).

The lesson here therefore is that the training should relate to specific business goals that delegates are both involved with and able to influence.

Old habits die hard. Stephen Covey remarks that all things are created twice. For example, a building is conceived in every detail on the architect's drawing board well before the first brick is laid; and businessmen set out their plans and consider alternative strategies before they act.

However, while people are used to planning their approach to significant tasks, they rarely plan the way in which to approach them. Most people get up in the morning in neutral, and whether it turns out to be a 'good day' or a 'bad day' is generally left to circumstance. For example, how often have you had a 'bad day' because of an argument over the breakfast table or a delay to the train? Or alternatively had a 'good day' because of a phone call from a friend or a pleasant conversation with someone at the coffee machine?

If training (in particular, for leadership) is to be effective, you need to alter your approach and consciously set out to approach things differently. As anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows, habits die hard, but as anyone who has tried giving up also knows, it is a lot easier if you do it with someone else. You then have someone to share the challenge, someone to remind you of the goals and objectives, and someone to let down other than yourself if you fail.

For leadership training to be highly effective and act as a catalyst for change, all three of these issues need to be addressed. To achieve this the following approach is recommended:

1. Objectives – The first step is to be clear about what objectives the organisation is targeting. Unless you can clearly define the objective, how can you determine whether it has been achieved?

2. Development plan – Start working with a training company at this stage to decide what is possible and achievable, as well as setting out timetables and budgets. Most important of all, you need to factor into your plan the capacity of the organisation for key members of staff to be away from their jobs, and the time they will need once back from training to enable them to make changes. A lot of training is wasted simply because people return to a huge backlog of work, and the momentum of the training programme is completely lost.

3. Personnel – Decide who should be trained. If training is going to have a dramatic impact, then the selection of people to be trained is vital. Start at the top with the most senior people, as they will have the clearest view of the objectives and will be able to assist in moulding the training for subsequent staff.

Try to select named individuals rather than grades, levels or functions, for the people who attend will then see they have been specifically selected as 'change-agents' in the organisation. This is generally more cost-effective than training everyone at a certain level – and it is invariably far more effective all round.

4. Pre and Post-course involvement – Ensure that the training company includes pre-course 360° questionnaires that require input from the participant's manager, peers and subordinates. In addition to the great value this feedback can offer, it also alerts everyone to the fact that the attendees are on a course and heightens the expectations that something will change when they return. After the course, ensure that managers are briefed to provide support and assistance and that the training company remains accessible to the delegates and doesn't just disappear.

In my own organisation we supplement this process by providing delegates with access to a unique Knowledge Network. This service gives members access to a community of highly experienced and successful people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Their role is to assist members by passing on the benefits of their knowledge and experience and, in doing so, to act as another support function in helping translate classroom theory into business practice.

In my experience, applying all of these processes together can lead to that butterfly effect; the relatively modest sums of money spent on training will lay foundations that will act as the catalyst for dramatic and successful step-changes in an organisation's performance.

Alistair Schofield is the Managing Director of Extensor Ltd, a training, development and coaching company that specialises in the development of leadership skills. Prior to joining Extensor, Schofield worked at senior levels in both the IT and financial services industries. He is a regular writer and speaker on the subjects of leadership, organisational effectiveness, strategic thinking and people development.