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Get the Most Out of your Next Leadership Development Program

Get the Most Out of your Next Leadership Development Program

By: Catherine Conlan

The leadership industry is enormous, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, who is the Thomas D. Dee II professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

You may have noticed this yourself, given the volume of leadership books on bookstore shelves. 

In fact, McKinsey & Co. estimates that U.S. companies alone spend more than $14 billion a year on leadership development; Pfeffer himself estimates the amount is much higher. 

But if so much money is being spent on developing leaders, why isn’t it working? After all, says Pfeffer, “Job satisfaction is low and 35 percent of employees say they would forego a raise if they could fire their direct supervisors,” citing a 2012 Parade/Yahoo survey.

Pfeffer digs into the mistakes that employers often make when training effective leaders in his new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. “Most companies, if you ask them, will tell you they’re not creating sufficient leaders,” he says. “There’s all this tremendous effort with no evidence that it’s working.”

There are several steps employers can take to ensure they’re getting the most out of their leadership development programs. Do your research and demand results to ensure you grow strong leaders at your organization. Here’s how.

Mistakes to Avoid
Pfeffer says employers are making several errors when it comes to training leaders. No matter the size or industry of the organization, these mistakes will derail any useful leadership development your company wants to do.

  • They have no vision for what new leaders will do. It’s difficult to train leaders when you don’t know what you’re preparing them for, Pfeffer says. Employers should develop a leadership development strategy that identifies new leaders’ roles when they take the reins of a team, department or company.
  • They hire amateurs. Leadership development curriculum is a tricky thing to nail down, and with a lack of credentials to ensure a presenter is capable of getting results, Pfeffer says. “Anybody can be a leadership coach or expert, without proving you have the experience or expertise.” 
  • They don’t vet the curriculum. Leadership development is often offered to employees simply as a presenter who gives a lecture on leadership, Pfeffer says. After offering a course or seminar or having employees read a book, company leaders simply send out the ratings sheet and ask for feedback. When material isn’t evaluated properly, Pfeffer says, it’s hard to get results that are useful.

How to Get it Right
Leadership development doesn’t just happen; employers must make the effort to put together a plan and identify the specific results they hope to get from training people for leadership positions.

  • Set a baseline. “The first thing organizations ought to do is figure out why they’re doing leadership development and measure the output by those criteria,” Pfeffer says. Dig into the metrics you want to change at your organization — employee engagement, turnover rates, people succeeding in their jobs, and so on. Take the time and effort to implement a data/research-based leadership program that ties in with your business strategy. This baseline will help you measure the effectiveness of your training and new leaders down the road.
  • Research the program. While it’s difficult to nail down standards for leadership development training, Pfeffer recommends asking about the relevant credentials presenters have when it comes to the science of what they offer. “Many have, many have not,” he says. Ask for hard data that supports their results.
  • Don’t get lazy. Leadership development isn’t hard if employers are serious about it, Pfeffer says. Too often, companies rely on an approach that consists of a speaker, a dinner, “and then we’ll all go home and we’ll be done.” Instead, companies need to commit to change and providing the support that developing leaders need.

Pfeffer recommends companies “stop chasing innovation” when it comes to leadership development. Relying on “inspiring talks” to spark growth among emerging leaders isn’t going to get results, he says. Science-based and professionally relevant courses are what employers need when it comes to leadership development.