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Why Leadership Development Fails: 7 Reasons Companies Struggle

Learn the reasons why leadership development fails and the challenges companies face to develop leaders in unprecedented times.

Publish Date: July 6, 2022

Read Time: 5 min

Author: Verity Creedy

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7 Reasons Why Leadership Development Fails

The pandemic forced a massive shift in leadership development. Companies had to adapt their programs for the virtual and hybrid workplace, sometimes on a smaller budget and/or with a leaner L&D team. They had to reassess what skills leaders needed to guide organizations through uncertainty and change. They also had to figure out how to retain employees and attract talent during a time when over 47 million employees quit their jobs. And the need to adapt hasn’t stopped with many of these organizations still juggling lean L&D teams with growing employee numbers.

Companies that stuck with the status quo or did nothing made the worst choice. Not investing in leadership development and adapting to changes in the workplace is why leadership development fails. It’s like sending leaders off to run a marathon without a pair of running shoes. Doing nothing guarantees instant failure.

It’s clear that companies with evolving leadership development programs are a step ahead in this economy. But there’s always room for improvement. So, what are some of the most common missteps we see?

1. Ditching the Classroom

With many teams working hybrid or remotely for the long term, companies may not be able to bring learners together in a physical classroom. But if you can’t bring people together in person, you shouldn’t stop classroom training.

In fact, employees working remotely are looking for more opportunities to connect and learn in the classroom with other leaders. Remote working in general has started to create a shift back to silos and some feelings of isolation. So instead of ditching the classroom, companies can use virtual classrooms to keep leaders connected. Using virtual classroom shows an ongoing dedication of organizations to growing and developing their employees. And the virtual classroom is not a compromise—the return on learning investment is the same as face-to-face engagements.

2. Relying on “Old Faithful”

Rather than investing in new leaders or improving the skills of current ones, companies tend to stick with the usual suspects. And who are we talking about? The people who get things done. The people who have been successful in the past.

Trusting the same group of reliable leaders may deliver short-term benefits and results. However, it does little to strengthen the overall leadership pipeline. And it can also burn out those “old faithful” high performers. That’s why leadership development fails over the long term for companies using this approach: high-potential employees are untapped.

3. Taking a “Build It and They Will Come” Approach

Many companies make online learning and other self-directed resources available to leaders and then think their work is done.

While self-directed learning should be a part of an organization’s program, not all development should be independent. Leaving professional development to individual curiosity and chance is risky—it often doesn’t work.

And it’s not hard to understand why. DDI research confirms that learners are looking for less self-directed learning. Learners are overwhelmed by receiving content that is not curated for their leadership role, growth areas, or challenges.

4. Adopting a “Sink or Swim” Strategy

The constant pressure to get things done quickly makes it tempting to follow “natural selection.” But the debate about whether a leader is born or made is over: leadership is developed over time.

While some people may have qualities that give them a leg up in certain situations, leadership requires focus and practice.

And the evidence is there to support formal development, particularly with key leadership transitions. Companies with transition programs to prepare their leaders to step up are more than two times more likely to be in the top 20 percent of organizations in their financial performance.

5. Compressing Learning to Save Time

We’re all familiar with the pressure to find the most efficient way to get work done—at times meaning that we take shortcuts. Companies are looking for ways to reduce time spent on all activities, including training. However, it’s important to constantly ask, “Are these ‘more efficient’ ways of doing things really getting us the results we need? Or if we must compress time, then how can we be sure we spend time on the most relevant learning?"

6. Employing a One-and-Done Program

Some companies choose to invest in a single event or short program for their leadership training. But while a one-and-done approach checks the box to do something, it ignores a critical fact: leaders develop new behaviors and habits over time.

Effective leadership development needs to be constructed as a learning journey that unfolds over time. And it should draw on multiple learning options and modalities. It should also provide opportunities for skill practice and application.

7. Overvaluing the Role of Technology

Despite the attention and investment it attracts, learning technology isn’t having a notable impact on leadership or business outcomes. Nor is technology surpassing high-touch methods such as formal learning and development assignments.

While the appropriate use of technology has the potential to improve leadership development, it may not always be the best option. The key is to understand the problems technology will solve and the needs it will meet before investing. Both relevance and curation remain critical.

In Conclusion:

Set Up Leadership Development for Success

Leadership development is hard to get right. But your leaders need you to get it right because they have more on their shoulders than ever before. And your company’s livelihood depends on it.

But you can avoid these mistakes. Prepare your leaders to not just get by, but to thrive through times of change. Ensure they have the essential leadership skills to lead today and prepare for the uncertainty of tomorrow.

To learn more, download DDI’s Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development.

Verity Creedy is a director in DDI’s product management team. Usually living in London, Verity has spent time working at five different DDI offices, including U.S. Headquarters.

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