Why Your Leadership Development Model Doesn’t Work

Depending on the source, leadership development is a $14 billion, $24 billion, or even $50 billion market in the US alone. And yet it is difficult to find the return on the investment. Companies are not performing significantly better, and even though the data are getting a bit better employees are still as disengaged as ever.

You’ve got a wrong mindset

If you approach every new person, every new interaction with caution and with the mindset that this person may hurt you and be an obstacle to your success, you will live in a very sad world. If people are obstacles, then your world is full of obstacles. That is no fun, and no way to accomplish anything.

A better approach is the start with a paradigm that people are in their core good and mean you well. Then you have a world filled with individuals who are here to help you when you need it and who deserve your own care and help.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about three types of people Givers, Matchers, and Takers. The difference between givers and takers is most startling. Takers believe that their needs take precedence over the needs of others. Since they see the world through their frame of reference, they think other people are also takers. Therefore they have low expectations when it comes to potential and motives of the people in their teams or their peers. They are more likely to micromanage and will be more paranoid than givers.

Givers, on the other hand, have their standard mode of thinking that everyone has potential. As the moniker suggests, they care about the success of others, often even at their own expense. They don’t need to see the potential in others to support them. They assume it is there. Givers believe in their people and provide a more nurturing environment.

Numerous studies have shown that this works as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that others have the potential to grow, you implicitly provide the encouragement, trust, and support, so it comes true. And vice versa, if you believe that others are incompetent and untrustworthy, your behavior towards them will cause them to stagnate and ultimately become incompetent and untrustworthy.

Unfortunately, the taker’s mentality is often the root cause of failed leadership development programs at many companies. Development programs are being treated as a zero-sum game where only some benefit. Companies focus on “high potentials,” whatever it means, and tend to ignore the rest of the smart, dedicated people on their teams.

Just consider your company. Chances are that you follow a version of this process:

  • identify high-potentials or people with leadership potential
  • provide them with training, coaching, and mentoring
  • provide them with resources they need to grow
  • provide them with opportunities to use their newly acquired skills

Ultimately, you see results. I’m not saying the process is bad, it does provide results. However, it is incomplete. The first step in identifying talent is inherently flawed. Yes, we all need to prioritize how and where we spend our time and money, but by taking this approach, we are leaving behind a treasure of human potential. You have spent lots of effort on hiring the best and brightest into your team. And now you are spending even more time sorting them out?

And what happens to those who didn’t get your attention? They are left behind. On purpose. You have decided that they are not high potentials. You can be assured that self-fulfilling prophecy will work its magic and they will indeed get left behind, or the best of them will simply take their own destiny into their hands and leave.

Hiring superstars

The problem actually starts much earlier and in an unexpected place. It begins with hiring “the top talent.” I won’t discuss it today as I extensively covered it in a couple of articles already: Why Leaders Should Hire Their Opposites, Mediocrity Is Contagious And What To Do About It, and How To Win The War For Talent.

As Adam Grant writes, Boris Groysberg and his team concluded that “hiring stars is advantageous neither to stars themselves, in terms of their performance, nor to hiring companies in terms of their market value.”

The model many companies use by luring stars from their competitors in hopes they will replicate the success at the new company is flawed. Groysberg and the team examined more than a thousand star analysts at Wall Street and found out that most of them didn’t fare particularly well when changing companies. Their performance and success declined. The conclusion is that their former excellence was tied to resources, culture, colleagues, and networks of their employer. Even stars need a good support team, and when changing the team there is no guarantee they can replicate their success.

This is an essential realization when you are a highly successful person who feels underappreciated and dissatisfied in the current company. Before you jump the ship, consider what the cause of your success is and whether you will be able to replicate it in a new place. Maybe a better way forward is to focus on renewing your energy in your current company.

This exercise is somewhat complicated by the fact that successful people contribute a disproportionate amount of success to their own efforts and forget about the circumstances, environment, and other people who contribute. It was us who made this deal happen, and therefore we can as well make it happen in the future.

Stop sorting out talent

What about changing the approach and giving everyone an equal chance? Maybe it won’t be so razor-focused on a couple of selected superhumans, but it will give everyone equal opportunity to shine if they chose to do so. It will help everyone to be responsible for their own success.

In the standard process, you are essentially serving opportunities on a gold platter to a couple of people whether they give it their own effort or not. In the new paradigm, you would open the door for everyone and then it is up to them to show they care, want to grow, and are willing to give it their best. The results will be a wider variety of highly productive people. It will also be more motivating for everyone involved.

In the giver’s paradigm, you don’t try to sort out talent first. What you do is to spark interest and focus on the motivation of everyone. It is then up to a specific person to either step up or not.

Ultimately, you find yourself working with ambitious and gritty people. Those individuals who use the original spark to focus and persevere. It doesn’t matter whether you could initially see their talent or not. They are those who will provide the most meaningful return on the time and effort you invest. If you are unsure about what grit means read this.

Start with the mindset – both you and the employees need to have the right mindset. You all need to believe that everyone can learn and that there are enough opportunities for everyone. There may not be the fancy title for everyone, but there can certainly be exciting work and challenges for those who seek them.

If they don’t care, don’t waste your time – there is no point of trying to train someone who doesn’t want to be trained or who just goes with the motion. Stop wasting your time and money on people who already believe they know everything, who think that it is your responsibility and not theirs to help them growing, who don’t put in the effort on their own.

If all the employees do is complaining that they don’t know the latest technology because the company doesn’t want to invest in them, then they won’t really learn it even if you do invest. Instead, invest in those who already took the first step and started learning on their own. They showed the drive and ownership of their future, so help them out.

Focus on context – understand what exactly is needed by the business and by the employee. Understand why you want to provide leadership development. Is it because you have a problem with attrition, performance, engagement, or you are growing fast and need to scale the business? Understand what drives your employees. Is it their personal development, desire to have a more significant impact, desire to help customers or desire for more power? It is in the intersection of the needs of the company and the needs of the employee where the fastest development happens.

Understand the from-to journey – for each employee understand where they are today and where they need to be in the future. By understanding the starting conditions and more importantly, what the ultimate goal is will lead to better-focused development. And don’t try to change everything at the same time. Focus on building one or two competencies with the most significant impact. Human behavior is a complex system, and by improving one area, you are also positively influencing other areas. By selecting a small number of things to focus on, you are setting priorities.

Understand the business challenge – and show how the expected results look like. Leaders need to feel the pain of real-world problem rather than a hypothetical study they forget tomorrow. The skills you want to develop must have immediate relevance to the people being developed. If they don’t see how a particular ability or behavior helps them solve the problem at hand, they won’t give it the effort and priority, and ultimately the development will fail.

Measure the change in behavior – the one thing that rarely happens in leadership development is measuring the changes in behavior. So how do you know if your development program works? You don’t! You may gather some feedback from the participants of the class asking whether it was useful, whether the trainer was good, whether the format worked, whether the content made sense, and that’s it. Lots of good feedback. Beneficial to the trainer.

But you are not training the trainer! You are training the participants. And they are not those who can give you feedback whether they got better. It is their peers, bosses, and subordinates who can give you that type of feedback. Employing 360-degree feedback or similar mechanisms is pretty much required if you want to measure the success of your leadership development.

To sum it up

To make your leadership development and any personal and professional development programs effective, you need to do several things. Give opportunity to participate to everyone and let them self-select out. Focus then on those who really want to learn and don’t waste your time with those who don’t care. Identify the intersection of the company needs and the employee needs. Select one or two skills or behaviors at the time to keep priorities clear. Make sure that improvement in these areas would have an immediate positive impact. No point trying to develop something that is not going to be used. Measure before and after how the employee is doing by gathering feedback from those they interact with. It is not you, it is not the employee, it is those they work with daily who should judge whether they see a meaningful change in the behavior of the developed employee.


What are your thoughts on leadership development programs? Do you believe they focus on the right people? Do you believe they maximize the value the company gets for a dollar spent? Or do you believe that there is a lot of wasted opportunity?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

Categories: Leadership, Performance

Tags: , , ,

1 reply


  1. Dangers Of Focusing Only On Your Strengths – The Geeky Leader

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