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Why Leadership Training Fails (and How to Avoid It)

Leadership training is an enormous industry within the business world today. And for good reason: the need for new leaders is constant in a developing business. Almost two-thirds of a group of 500 executives named leadership development as a number-one concern when asked to identify their top priorities. Yet, despite the clear need for nurturing new, effective leaders, many training programs fall flat.

Here are five pitfalls that are sure to bring leadership training down—and how to tackle the problems for better results.

1. Content out of context

“Leadership” is a broad term that can cover a whole array of behaviors and competencies. An easy mistake to make is to try and cover too much ground. In keeping your training goals too broad, there is less room for a focus on the specific leadership needs that will have the most impact. Without this focus, trainees are much less likely to retain what they’ve learned. Before implementing leadership training, first, ask yourself what the precise need is.  A specific emphasis on the right aptitudes lets your learners make their time in training count.

2. Setting inaccurate expectations

Studies show teachers’ expectations for their students’ achievements can influence how they perform. The same is true for the expectations that are set and communicated in leadership training. Without appropriate support, expectations and executive sponsorship, training can fall flat. Of equal importance is the need to be honest about whatever limitations the training may have. It is helpful for learners to understand what the training in particular may or may not be able to do for them. The best expectations set a challenge, but also take realistic results into account.

3. Learning without doing

A proper balance of both reflection and experience is the best way to ensure learners retain the material and use it to change their behavior. Leadership training programs often focus too much on theory without coupling the learning to real, active, on-the-job experiences. Furthermore, active learning shouldn’t be separated from real work and opportunities either. Real impact is inspiring to learners, and helps them push themselves to their full potential. Try incorporating actual ongoing business projects into training. Take advantage of your trainees’ new skills and high energy levels.

4. No room for risk-taking

Knowing what you should say or do is very different than actually performing these actions when the stakes are high in the real world. Without delving into a deep understanding of why changes aren’t made when they might need to be, learners lose the opportunity to examine how their own mindsets affect their work. Participants often need to leave their comfort zones if they’re going to address making real improvements. It takes emotional courage to face minor discomfort for the sake of positive change. Learners need to practice risk taking and challenging their thoughts and behaviors if they are going to change on the front lines.

5. Follow-up that doesn’t follow through

Even the most interesting and innovative leadership training in the world wouldn’t be much help if it failed to keep up momentum as time goes on. When developing a program, it’s easy to get caught up in trendy buzzwords and forget about the future. Is there a solid implementation plan? Is rollout prepared for? How will you measure the training results? Without a clear plan for monitoring change, leadership training runs the risk of learners “gaming the system”: responding in the ways they believe they trainer wants them to without committing to any real behavior changes in their work. Good follow-up helps learners make a serious commitment to what they’re learning.

Each of these factors can contribute to an ineffective leadership training program. Luckily, knowing what to avoid can help trainers develop material that resonates with their learners, and promotes lasting change and leadership improvement.