Why We Loathe Leadership Training

man-smoke-coming-out-ears.jpgIt’s more important for success than strategy, technology, and even products. The only way for an organization to survive and thrive long-term:  the ability to generate and regenerate talent on a continual basis.

But how? 

Of all the things we do to educate, the least valuable are the endless hours we force people to sit still and … ‘learn.’ 

Having spent ten years studying this question, and even more time designing and delivering talent development programs and activities for dozens of companies around the world, I’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t. These are four hard-and-fast rules for what works.

Rule 1: 70-20-10

Have you ever sat in a classroom all day for a training program, wondering “how did I get here?” Of all the things we do to educate – whether during school years or on the job – the least valuable of all are the endless hours we force people to sit still and … “learn.”

The 70-20-10 rule – popularized by the Center for Creative Leadership – suggests learning from challenging assignments should account for 70% of training time, with 20% from peer-to-peer learning and just 10% from traditional coursework. The best programs will integrate all three.

In a word, it’s about learning by doing, adjusting based on constant feedback, failing fast when necessary, and continuously iterating to get closer to where you need to be. Static one-way learning on its own just can’t do that.

Rule 2: Eat Your Own Cooking

I find it fascinating when a leadership development program is rolled out to managers without the participation of senior executives. There is no replacement for having some skin in the game – by being involved as teachers, facilitators, and coaches. And maybe even more important, if the CEO thinks it’s wise for middle managers to learn about, say, design thinking, why is the top management team not doing the same or similar?

Not only does participation of higher-ups enhance the credibility of the activity, but it also helps a wider set of key decision makers share a common logic and language. And that’s a building block for culture, the bedrock DNA of all organizations.

Rule 3: Customize to Your World

Business schools and consulting and training organizations love to sell stuff off the shelf. It’s easier, it’s proven, it’s faster. But what works in the fashion industry is not necessarily right in natural resources. It makes sense for core themes – around strategy, for example – to be part of any management development program, but what strategy means in fashion and mining is obviously different.

What strategy means in fashion and mining is obviously different. 

The best of the “competency models” that have taken hold among the HR corporate community, which define what it means to be a leader, need to reflect differences in seniority, job focus and what matters most in the industry.

Just like the best managers customize how they manage people on their teams, the same is true about the specific experience and content needed to train a generation of leaders. How could it not be? One size most definitely does not fit all. One solution I’ve seen that has considerable potential are digital learning platforms that curate what each manager needs to do and learn to move forward as a leader.

Rule 4: The Best Leadership Teacher is Your Boss

The single best piece of advice I have for any CEO looking to accelerate leadership development and training in her company is to focus on the bosses, up and down the hierarchy. The amount of time an aspiring manager spends with her boss dwarfs the time she might spend in formal training programs.

The amount of time an aspiring manager spends with her boss dwarfs the time she might spend in formal training programs. 

Do the bosses in your organization know what they need to do to boost the capabilities of their staff? Can they identify new challenges without being handcuffed by career ladders that often limit potential? Is that work being integrated into other leadership activities? It helps to have key bosses as business partners in leadership development efforts. Are you monitoring progress, both for the bosses and their team members, tracking how effective each boss is in generating and regenerating talent?

Vast amounts of money — into the tens of billions — are spent on leadership training every year, but the return on investment almost certainly doesn’t match up. Despite this, senior executives continue to give the green light for another round, magically hoping that results will materialize while not doing anything different. It’s not easy, but why handcuff yourself from the start? Maybe it’s time to start following some new rules.


Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent

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In this session of ExecuNet Master Class, Professor Sydney Finkelstein outlines what and how dozens of exceptional leaders of our time helped develop the best talent in their industries to become legendary successes. He describes the superboss playbook – the key management practices that separate the best bosses from the merely good ones.

You’ll learn how to go from being a good boss to a superboss and how doing so will also help you professionally… help you a lot. Listen to this session and you ‘ll never go about leading, recruiting, evaluating and developing talent in quite the same way again!



Sydney Finkelstein

Sydney Finkelstein

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He holds a Masters degree from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Professor Finkelstein has published more than 80 articles, as well as 21 books, including the #1 bestseller Why Smart Executives Fail. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Management and on the global Thinkers 50 list of top management thought leaders. His latest bestselling book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, which LinkedIn Chairman Reid Hoffman calls the “leadership guide for the Networked Age,” while Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, says “Superbosses gives leaders a playbook to bring out the best in their people.” He is also the co-founder of Superbosses, Inc., a startup that trains managers to become more effective and innovative leaders via a best-in-class digital learning platform. He can be reached on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

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