The Great Training Robbery


“Corporations are victims of the great training robbery”, say Harvard Business School’s Michael Beer and his colleagues in a recent impactful in HBR article. Indeed, I have often experienced this lack of skills transfer from the classroom (real or virtual) to the workplace during organizational change projects. The authors describe a staggering statistic … most worrying because I see this performance gap in my consulting work regularly:

“American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things”.

I’m sure that many of us have experienced the situation where companies invest heavily in leadership development programs intended to drive organizational changes, only to find that not much changes – leaders don’t apply these new learnings in the workplace. A few years ago, a senior leader that I reported to was invited to attend a lengthy (and I assume very costly) leadership development program over a period of about 12 months. In my regular meeting with her, I would ask how things were going, and what she was learning. She was enthusiastic and commented very positively about the program. But, over that year long period, I specifically looked for changes in her behavior and saw very little. Indeed, her leadership flaws became more visible because the change project she was leading was struggling and she was being tested. It’s easy to be a good leader when things are easy, but it’s a lot tougher to be a great leader when things are difficult – and that’s exactly when great leadership is needed the most.

Four key questions

In my experience, it is essential for the following four issues to have clear answers before any investment in leadership development training is considered:

1.     What are the specific behaviors needed from leaders to execute the company’s (or the business unit’s) business strategy, and why are these behaviors not being enacted?

2.     Is there a comprehensive 360-degree leadership assessment in place to encourage leaders to understand their strengths and weaknesses so that they are more receptive to the development process. It is also important to understand leaders’ insights on why they have not been able to behave or act in a certain manner.

3.     Does the leadership development process allow for customization for the needs of the organization, and for the unique developmental areas of individual leaders? Even the best generic leadership training content will have limited transfer to the workplace if it does not focus on the unique needs and context of the company and its leaders.

4.     Understanding the workplace environment or context that fosters (or inhibits) learning transfer is critical. Three key aspects of this are most important in my view: First, senior leaders must be held accountable for behavioral change (a leading indicator), not simply business results (a lagging indicator). Second, the work environment or context must be changed to support the new learnings and behavior, and thirdly, most leaders require some initial (and possibly ongoing) coaching support to successfully change their behaviors.

Organizational Context

Organizational environment or context is almost always ignored or underemphasized in change initiatives where training is required. For example, in a global energy company I consulted with, we were asked to investigate why the organization was losing out to competitors when negotiating drilling rights in other countries. Our findings showed that the organization was very slow to make decisions regarding elements of the contracts being negotiated, and simply lost out because competitors made quicker decisions and reached agreements faster. The organization responded by wanting to implement training for leaders on how to make quicker decisions. When interviewing contract negotiators, we found that lack of decision-making competency was not the problem. Negotiators where quite capable of making quick decisions, but the processes and procedures for getting proposals approved at higher levels were incredibly cumbersome. Training on these competencies would have been a complete waste of time and money.

Non-linear leadership development

Finally, there is a wonderful and aligned insight from Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman (of “The Extraordinary Leader” fame) about a common mistake made in leadership training and development: They describe a situation where a leader’s 360-degree assessment showed quite clearly that they were not rated well in technical capabilities. A common response would be to recommend technical training. However, in what Jack and Joe call “non-linear” development, deeper analysis showed that associated skills were missing, not technical. Digging deeper, research has shown that the best scientists or engineers are not necessarily those with the best technical skills, but rather those that collaborate with colleagues exceptionally well are more successful. For some leaders with poor technical performance, interpersonal (EQ) skills training may be needed rather than technical skills.

Foiling the robbery!

$160 billion in training is a lot of investment. Rather than being “robbed”, I think it is good advice to look more deeply at what we are trying to achieve, the context in which the training will take place and what we focus our training investments on.