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How to overcome the limitations of leadership training

Jack Smith, Celebration

Training alone often fails to develop today’s employees into tomorrow’s senior managers. It is systems and behaviours in the workplace that need to change before workers can take an organisation to the next level.

They say a leopard can't change its spots. Similarly, most employees fail to develop and improve their leadership skills when given training.

Several mistakes are routinely made when leadership training is offered in a bid to transform good organisations into great ones. Writing for Harvard Business Review (HBR), Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström and Derek Schrader looked at the common pitfalls and also the solutions in making employee training worthwhile.

Globally, around $356 billion was spent on employee training and education in 2015; a not insignificant amount as organisations attempted to improve their leadership and management capabilities from within.

Applying training into the workplace environment

As a case study, the authors analysed a division of a micro-electronic products company that had invested heavily in a week-long leadership training workshop. Most employees attended, and participants described the programme as “very powerful”. Numerous tasks involving teamwork were undertaken and the workshop ended with a plan to execute these skills back in the workplace. Surveys – both before and after the event – suggested participants’ attitudes had changed for the better.

However, two years later and nothing had really changed, despite many workers being inspired by the initial workshop. Employees subsequently found it “impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organisational barriers: a lack of strategic clarity, the previous general manager’s top-down style, a politically charged environment, and cross-functional conflict”.

The lessons learned from the case study: it is hard to translate training and leadership theory into the realities of a badly functioning workplace.

Looking into what goes wrong

A number of other studies also back this up. In 2011, 75% of nearly 1,500 senior managers interviewed by CEB were found to be dissatisfied with their companies’ learning and development function.

And nearly three decades ago, a report was published by HBR author Michael Beer that monitored thousands of employees across many business units. It discovered that training programmes did not actually facilitate organisational change. Again, the findings were that even well-trained and motivated employees failed to apply their new skills and knowledge into the real world of work.

One reason for this was that when employees went back to their desks, many had little power to change the systems that surrounded them; rather, the systems themselves shaped their mindsets and behaviours.

This idea is backed up by an analysis of ‘star’ Wall Street analysts conducted by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Boris Groysberg. When these analysts moved to new firms during his five-year study, many failed to replicate their stunning earlier performances in new surrounds. The ones that kept achieving stellar results, despite moving firms, had taken their teams – the systems that helped them succeed—with them.

Why the correct systems facilitate success

The conditions which define roles, responsibilities and relationships must therefore be in place before any training can be deemed a success. A further study by Amy Edmondson, of HBS, and Anita Woolley, of Carnegie Mellon, revealed that organisations need “fertile soil” before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow. This study identified those organisations that had established a safe climate in which subordinates could speak up saw the greatest improvements following training and education programmes.

Therefore, systems, and not employees, need to change first for conditions to be amenable to improving individual and organisational effectiveness, and that these structures must to be firmly embedded to sustain any learning.

Under this thinking, it is wrong to select just one individual with the intention of developing new skills so they can then improve an organisation’s overall effectiveness. An organisation needs to be seen as a living, breathing system of interacting elements – different processes, people, practices and cultural backgrounds. It is this that may need changing. One individual, however well they are trained, is not going to be able to alter bad organisational behaviour and performance.

This also means that a failure to execute change should be levelled at the policies and practices created by top management. This, though, can be a difficult message for HR managers and others to tell senior leaders. And it is why sometimes HR – as an ‘easy’ option – put the blame on an individual employee and suggest training as the clear solution, rather than advocate structural change.

Overcoming barriers to change

Helping senior managers, then, needs candid conversation. Faltering companies often struggle with:

  • unclear direction on strategy and values, which often leads to conflicting priorities;
  • senior executives who don’t work as a team and haven’t committed to a new direction or acknowledged necessary changes in their own behaviour;
  • a top-down or laissez-faire style by the leader, which prevents honest conversation about problems;
  • a lack of coordination across businesses, functions or regions due to poor organisational design;
  • inadequate leadership time and attention given to talent issues; and
  • employees’ fear of telling the senior team about obstacles to the organisation’s effectiveness.

Often, all of these barriers are present at the same time, blocking systemic changes needed to make training effective.

The six steps to success

Diagnosing the problem is half the battle. And HBR’s authors advocate the following steps to nurture talent development:

1) The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction.

2) After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organisation’s roles, responsibilities and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.

3) Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design.

4) The organisation adds training where needed.

5) Success in changing behaviour is gauged using new metrics for individual and organisational performance.

6) Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organisational behaviour.

As a case in point, HBR’s authors then returned to the micro-electronic products company. Using the steps above, they found that “inter-functional conflict, political behaviour and embedded managerial practices were undermining new-product development and employee commitment”. The review also unearthed unclear strategy and priorities, and a siloed organisation that hindered co-ordination. Roles and responsibilities were then changed and quarterly reviews set up to assess the effectiveness of teams and to report on any problems.

Learning and development – for both senior leaders and team members – then came in the form of hands-on coaching and process consultation. Team members had more ownership of their work, which gave them a feeling of investment in the company. And although early meetings were not very effective because people weren’t used to collaborating, things gradually improved and after two years there was a remarkable change in leadership, teamwork and, perhaps most crucially of all, performance.

UK grocery chain ASDA also undertook a similar corporate transformation in the 1990s in a bid to develop the organisation in every area of the business. Instead of just rolling out the initiative across the country, it made sure individual stores were ready for the change before implementation. ASDA achieved this by creating a few model stores in which to demonstrate the leadership and organisational capabilities it wanted. Other stores then had to follow this ASDA “way of working” before they could participate. If a store kept failing to meet these standards, its manager would be replaced. At the time, the transformation was heralded as the most successful in the UK and the retailer saw its market capitalisation improve tenfold.

Training as the final piece of the jigsaw

Organisations need to view leadership training as the final piece of the jigsaw. Talent development is all about strategic change – first at the top and then in each major unit. Even in companies with strong leaders and healthy cultures, some units will be at different stages of development. And, much like the ASDA approach, change will only be successful if local variables are first of all taken into account.

Source Article: LR Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It
Author(s): Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström and Derek Schrader