Does Leadership Training Work?

Businesspeople Discussing Project

Many companies are seeking to help their employees develop better leadership skills as a way for those organizations to ensure long-term viability, continuity, and succession planning. Leadership training can help in developing skilled leaders, provided it fits within certain parameters, has all the factors essential for quality leadership training, and fits with the style of leaders being developed.

Leadership Training Case Study

To demonstrate how leadership training can affect an organization, a case study is instructive.

According to a 2010 analysis conducted by McKinsey & Company on the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), training programs provide the greatest value to organizations that firmly ground the leadership instruction in organizational objectives coupled with meaningful metrics.

Leadership Attributes

The McKinsey study found that BGCA used regression analysis to winnow down the non-profit's 50 most valued leadership attributes to the four most impactful leadership skills which were:

  • Persistence and personal tenacity
  • An investor's mindset about resources and programs
  • A focus on effective revenue development strategies
  • The ability to assemble an effective board

Methods

This BGCA program exhibited each of the aforementioned leadership training elements, which are necessary for success. First, the national headquarters of the BGCA and senior leadership across the organization recognized the need for such a training program. They then went on to focus on the primary leadership skills they wanted to develop that were both impactful and congruent with the BGCA's objectives.

Next, the training was rolled out across a quarter of the locations to allow the leadership trainees the chance to apply their new capabilities, while the other locations served as a valuable control group for comparing results. Finally, the BGCA "shared the wealth" from the implemented changes and increased budgets across the board to incentivize all locations to put the leadership training program into practice.

Findings

The study goes on to state that during the next two years, the BGCA built and rolled out its training campaign based on developing those four competencies across 250 locations, and the results were remarkable:

BGCA realized more than 350,000 new members nationally.

  • They saw an incremental increase of more than $100 million in annual revenue.
  • BCGA provided a two to three percent increase in the average location's budget.
  • The organization saw more than four times the return on the training program's total costs.

Interpretation

BCGA realized significant improvements in their programs nationwide that corresponded with the leadership training program. This case study demonstrates the value and impact of effective leadership training when coupled with meaningful metrics.

Four Factors of Leadership Training

The reality is there is no one single leadership training solution that will fit the needs of every organization. However, there are some recurring similarities that the best leadership training options have in common.

Buy-in and Support from Top Leadership

It is necessary to have buy-in and support from the leadership at the top of the organization. For any leadership initiative to be effective, it needs to be modeled by at least one member of the top executive team---otherwise the organization needs to reevaluate its leadership training expectations.

Identification of Skills to Support Objectives and Goals

Every business is unique with its own culture, structure and values. The desired leadership capabilities need to be congruent with those organizational intangibles, otherwise the effort will deliver sub-optimal results that will be difficult to measure and implement.

Chance to Apply Leadership Skills

The chance for leadership candidates to apply their leadership skills in a dynamic, real-world situation that's both challenging and engaging is essential. This is necessary to move the leadership training from a theoretical exercise to actionable results.

Prioritize Leadership Development

Lastly, it's critically important to make leadership development a priority across the organization. This requires a mechanism of accountability and incentive to ensure alignment across functional areas and all reporting levels. The best organizations link employee financial incentives or annual bonuses to drive leadership development results and participation in training activities.

Leadership Training Options

Researcher Daniel Goleman discusses six unique leadership styles. While Goleman asserts that every leader needs to adapt to more than one style of management based on situational needs, he recognizes that there tends to be a preferred or dominant style that each leader usually exhibits, so it's reasonable to assume that various management styles will have an impact on leadership learning, supporting the need for a blended approach regarding various leadership training options that are available. The following leadership training options may work best for certain types of leadership styles.

Higher Education at College or University

Business education

Many companies offer tuition assistance or a certain number of free college classes for employees to earn advanced degrees, as well as executive M.B.A. training for high-potential individuals. Given the high level of team assignments and interaction with classmates, this particular training model is best suited for the Coaching, Democratic, and Affiliative management styles.

Pros of this method include:

  • Excellent content and instructors
  • Ability to network with fellow students
  • Access to cutting-edge research

Cons of this method include:

In-House HR/Training Organization

Despite declines over the years, there are still many large organizations and corporations such as GE, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon that have unique business approaches requiring sophisticated, full-time training capabilities within the company itself. This allows for proprietary insights and complete customization of training materials and modules. While expensive to maintain, this particular form of leadership training is useful for all six of Goleman's management styles.

Pros of this method include:

  • High likelihood of organizational alignment
  • Training can occur on-site for added convenience
  • Demonstrated support from senior leadership

Cons of this method include:

  • High cost
  • Possible underutilization by employees
  • General decline in business training: according to the 2015 Economic Report of the President, there's been a 42 percent drop in employer-paid training and a 36 percent drop in on-the-job training between 1996-2008 (fig. 3-27, pg. 147)

Outsourcing Training

This type of training allows the company to focus on its core business and rely on the expertise of an external training agency to help achieve its leadership objectives. This type of approach tends to have on-site facilitators but blends in a lot of self-directed activities, making it a preferred training method for Coaching, Pacesetting, Democratic, and Affiliative managers.

Pros of this method include:

Cons of the method include:

  • Learning curve during initial integration
  • Loss of internal HR competency and institutional knowledge
  • Limited ability for training customization

In-License Training

This form of leadership training relies heavily on technological delivery via videoconferencing, webinars, or self-paced training modules online. Dense, virtual content that can be consumed at the convenience of the participant---that's not dependent on interacting with others---makes this a good option for Pacesetting, Coercive, and Authoritative management types.

Pros of this method include:

Cons of in-license training include:

  • Most trainings are either overly generalized or hyper specific to an individual function, such as sales, productivity, or strategy
  • Inability to customize content to your specific company
  • May lack necessary training depth

Regardless of what type of leadership training approach an organization chooses, it's critically important to be able to measure its results as seen in the BGCA case study.

All Leaders Require Training

Business Leadership

Some people may question the value of leadership training, adhering to cliches about "natural born leaders" or "leaders are born not made." While those trite phrases might sound good on a motivational poster hanging in the office break room, the reality is more complicated than that.

There are a number of older studies that have found correlations between genetics and leadership. Recent research on the topic from the University College London in 2013 notes that "nature" plays some role in leadership competencies; however, the lead author of that same study, Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve states, "The conventional wisdom - that leadership is a skill - remains largely true..."

Given the fact that leadership is a skill, it can be developed and enhanced as can any other skill. Smart organizations recognize that fact and proactively provide their employees with a variety of leadership training models, all of which have pros and cons.

Again, there's no single leadership training panacea. As such, smart companies adopt a blended training approach to adapt to the primary six management styles as listed in the landmark Harvard Business Review article in March 2000 by researcher and Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman.

A Looming Leadership Void

The U.S. is in the early stages of what appears to be the largest exodus of leaders from business, education, government and non-profit sectors in the nation's history.

Recent statistics from Gallup show that only a third of the oldest baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, have continued to work past the age of 65, which is contrary to traditional wisdom that boomers planned to work well into retirement.

The study further finds that as this large cohort continues to retire in coming years we are likely to be facing a shortage of experienced workers and leaders---a leadership shortage that would touch every aspect of society, and there aren't enough "natural born leaders" to fill that gap.

Training Leaders

While there may be a few individuals who have a genetic tendency towards leadership, there has never been a great leader that didn't first receive some form of training or learning.

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Does Leadership Training Work?