When Leadership Development Misses the Mark

New research finds leadership-development programs aren't creating transformational leaders.
By: | August 21, 2018 • 3 min read
leadership development

Transformation is inevitable in today’s fast-paced, digital world and no business or industry is safe from it. According to Harvard Business Publishing’s 2018 State of Leadership Development report, more than half of the employers surveyed said they’re undergoing transformations right now, with another 32 percent reporting that they’ve completed a transformation in the past three years. No change happens without challenges, and according to the Harvard report, the most successful organizations will have transformational leaders at the helm to navigate those obstacles—the challenge is finding and developing said leaders. Organizations that understand this need place high priority on learning and development and, in turn, have greater revenue growth, market position and future growth potential than organizations that don’t leverage L&D as an avenue for success.

Unfortunately, over the past two years, researchers have found that L&D programs for leadership development are missing the mark. In the 2016 State of Leadership Development report, 75 percent of respondents said greater innovation was needed in learning techniques used in development programs. In 2018, the figure increased to 80 percent. This increase surprised Diane Belcher, senior director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, who expected to see a decrease in the latest report. Innovation is key to transformational L&D programs, she says, and ignoring it by keeping static L&D programs is one reason for dissatisfaction among leaders, especially millennials.


According to the report, millennials (age 36 and younger) were the most likely to agree that leadership-development programs need an innovative overhaul. Some of the biggest barriers to L&D program effectiveness cited by this population were poor content, insufficient expertise from outside sources and failure to make a compelling ROI case. Fewer than half of the millennial respondents (40 percent) rated their leadership-development programs as excellent, compared to 67 percent of baby boomers.

Stacey Philpot, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and head of the Leadership practice, says the findings about millennials’ overall dissatisfaction with leadership-development programs aren’t surprising. Younger generations live in a world of real-time, digital interactions, and L&D leaders should leverage those learning styles. Philpot suggests that learning content should be offered digitally, on demand and in small chunks and should be designed with digital interactions between learners at the core. But technology isn’t the only enhancement to make—to satisfy and retain millennial leaders, development programs need to be introduced sooner in an employee’s career.

“As the traditional leadership-pipeline approach continues to fade into oblivion, L&D organizations need to stop focusing their development initiatives on levels and rather on development by strategic talent groups,” says Philpot. “Younger generations have less patience and a more short-term career perspective than their predecessors. As such, L&D teams must get them into the development process earlier and let them know that their talents are recognized and that their ongoing development is the fastest way for them to move throughout the organization.”

L&D leaders who don’t leverage millennials’ unique skillsets properly are missing out on true innovation, Belcher adds.

“One huge opportunity is recognizing the role that these younger leaders can play in making sure the organization is transformation ready,” she says. “Transformation isn’t new for them—they’re used to working through change. They’re resourceful and continually seeking out new knowledge, so L&D leaders should use this to their advantage and tap into the innate organizational/individual agility that millennials have.”

Marrying Business and Learning

Lucrative L&D initiatives are those most closely aligned with core business challenges—and those that can be measured, says Belcher. According to the Harvard report, most organizations use employee satisfaction to determine success of leadership-development programs (67 percent), followed by the pipeline of future leaders (60 percent) and retention of high-potential employees (58 percent). What they should be doing instead is implementing business-impact projections and creating an opportunity for learners to apply what they’ve learned to a real business challenge. At the end of the project, says Belcher, you can see the tangible results and the true impact of the leadership-development program.

Philpot says what’s missing most often from leadership development are the alignment to the business context and the seamless integration into a leader’s work.

“Too often, organizations start by trying to answer the question, ‘How will we deliver our leadership development solution?’ ” says Philpot. “Instead, they should be answering questions like ‘Why is leadership important to us right now?’, ‘Who is most important that we invest in first?’ and ‘What specifically do we need these leaders to be able to do … in the context of where our business is going?’”