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Should leadership L&D programs be scrapped?

It’s difficult to change culture and align leaders when you don’t have control over the entire work environment and the myriad units that make it up
If organizational needs aren’t aligned and the change environment is not supported, you won’t get the full return on investment. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

Canadian employers spent an average of $889 per employee on learning and development in 2016–17 - an increase of $89 per employee since 2014-15, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s latest Learning and Development Outlook. The average number of hours of learning per employee per year has also risen from 25 hours in 2010 to 32 hours in 2016–17.

The report also states that “organizations with strong learning cultures exhibit better overall organizational performance in the areas of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, overall productivity, and overall leadership performance compared to organizations with weak learning cultures.”

And yet, when Vince Brewerton of Potential Project asked a room of 100 SCNetwork senior business leaders to respond by show of hands to “Who thinks leadership is easy today?” not one hand went up. The company’s research has reported that 65 per cent of employees would forego a pay raise to see their leader fired. It comes as no surprise then that leadership in the 21st century is going through a crisis, and the quality of their training is a key differentiator.

It’s also no secret when there’s talk of leadership development training in an organization, that there are several who will roll their eyes at the futility of the exercise. Many will question the efficacy of such training. And rightly so because despite heavy investments in leadership development programs, they often miss their mark.

Why then – HR is frequently asked – do they continue to invest in training that doesn’t yield 100 per cent? Should such programs be scrapped?

The reality is that people in most organizations end up in leadership roles not because they’re good leaders but because they are good at their functional area of expertise within the organization. 

In life insurance, for example, your best underwriter could end up being a leader of people. Therefore, the organization must invest in providing them leadership skills or else they will follow what they think is appropriate, make it up as they go along, or emulate leaders that they’ve experienced. Clearly, the notion of investing in leadership skills is a way to send a message to leaders about how they should be leading the organization.

Research by Deloitte’s Josh Bersin indicates that there is a strong need for leadership development programs to link with each other, and with other key HR initiatives throughout the organization. Failure in doing this would negatively impact the efficiency of succession and performance improvement efforts, resulting in a lack of faith in leadership development programs.

Leadership development, like organizational culture, is a change effort. If organizational needs aren’t aligned and the change environment is not supported, you won’t get the full return on investment. Organizations must communicate, align and embed the change to reach the expected results. You can’t just communicate that you want a culture change, you have to align your organizational systems to the desired change and embed it in decision-making.

When employees go to leadership training sessions on learning coaching skills or handling conflict, they might come back to their workplace to find that not only are their own leaders’ behaviours inconsistent with what they’ve learned in training, but that they don’t support it as well. They find that they can operate their own teams with learning from the leadership training, but that it is not reinforced by their own leaders.

Compensation, incentives, performance management, succession planning, etc., all must be in alignment with the new way of working.

Embedding is the hardest. When it comes down to who gets promoted, if the behaviours of those getting ahead are not consistent with the culture you’re trying to create or the new way of leading, then that is a red flag.

The real challenge with leadership development is that it’s not enough to simply train people. The training has to be situated within the context of the organizational systems, for it to be reinforced.

At Foresters, we launched a leadership academy last year and currently we are running its second cohort. This year’s cohort consists of those in the middle of the organization, and I’m not guaranteed of full senior leadership support. So why did we do it, knowing that we may not get the full pay back?

The answer is simple. We do our best. We engage the senior leadership in helping design the program, and in picking the right candidates for the training program. We built in feedback mechanisms ensuring participants were applying their training when they returned to their roles.

We also ran a pilot with a group of high-performance and high-potential leaders. We picked candidates who would be thirsty for the training and would be most likely to ensure that the training sticks.

We set it up for success as much as we can. While we won’t achieve 100 per cent success, we will be successful in moving the dial several degrees. The training will have a positive impact in imparting critical skills where the leaders-in-development will support each other, even if their own leaders aren’t supporting them.

The goal is to build leadership capacity and capability.

We must account for the fact that the leadership environment is fluid – it’s constantly evolving. New leaders emerge, while others leave. There will be those who weren’t around when the training was introduced and so weren’t aware of it. As such, it’s difficult to change culture and align leaders when you don’t have control over the entire work environment and the myriad units that make it up.

Leadership development then, like culture, should be understood as an ongoing process. We continue to push on all the edges that we can. We continue to engage leaders to help reinforce training. It’s important to emphasize in our talent discussions that our top leaders aren’t just the ones who get the most work done, but they’re the ones who follow a leadership style that’s consistent with how we’re training people to lead. Influencing as many organizational units as we can is the best way to make the most of our leadership development investment.

If the results of your leadership development training aren’t what you hoped for, try aligning your thinking style with the task at hand. Julian Chapman, president of Forrest & Company, has employed “Effective Intelligence” to help his clients achieve better workplace synergy and alignment. Chapman will be speaking at SCNetwork’s next event on Aug. 15.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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