Today’s rapidly evolving business landscape means effective leadership is more important than ever for organisations to survive, let alone thrive. What makes for resilient leadership is a continual flow of leadership capability, and that depends on the strength of leadership training.
In this blog, we’ll really drill down into what makes leadership training important, why it commonly fails, the different types of training for different leaders and how to develop a leadership training program that achieves business goals. Let’s get started.
What is leadership training?
Leadership training is a structured experience that helps individuals develop the skills, behaviours, knowledge and tools needed to be effective leaders. It generally covers areas such as communication, decision-making, teamwork, and strategic thinking that will help the workforce achieve organisational goals.
The importance of leadership training
Great leaders are rarely born and even harder to find fully formed. They are more commonly shaped by the environment in which they work—which means that any toxic or incompetent leaders in your ranks are, at worst, products of your systems and culture, and at best, co-signed by your systems and culture.
So, leadership training is basically ground zero for the leaders you need and want. It plays a pivotal role in:
- Shaping the talent pipeline
- Solidifying culture
- Aligning organisational goals with performance.
If we break each down further, that means creating a way to continuously identify and nurture high-potential employees. The technical aspect (skills and knowledge) can be grasped basing leadership courses on competency models, which give you a grade of performance (something like foundational, intermediate, advanced, strategic). The behavioural aspect can be ascertained from eagerness to undertake a leadership training program, potentially combined with completion rates.
What this does is create a constant flow of leadership skills, knowledge and behaviours throughout your organisation (creating an agile culture of leaders, too). And that minimises leadership gaps, which in turn minimises the potential for lowered productivity and morale.
Which leads happily into the point of fortifying your organisational culture. Senior leaders define it, team leaders cultivate it, and middle managers reinforce it, so at no point can you afford a bad apple. Leadership training helps leaders, new and tenured alike, learn about the values, vision, and mission of the organisation. They then become ambassadors of that desired culture, effectively cascading it throughout their teams.
It’s not just about instilling the right behaviours, but mindsets. Leaders will either role model a performance-driven mindset with the right tools to evaluate performance, provide constructive feedback, and address performance gaps effectively in line with organisational needs, or they’ll sustain an ineffective status quo. (And when you consider any business initiatives based on workforce momentum, like capability building and capacity building, you really see the impact.)
And the last point to note is that leaders translate business goals into actionable work. Training gives them the power to effectively communicate expectations and motivate their teams to achieve those goals.
In short: Work just doesn’t get done without effective leadership, and effective leadership requires effective leadership development. This is why we pioneered the first performance learning management system (PLMS) to help align training with results. A PLMS is an AI-powered platform designed to synchronise L&D with business performance, codifying and operationalising capabilities to improve organisational efficiency.
Why leadership training fails
Well, for starters, many training programs fail because learning doesn’t change behaviours, and people simply revert to old ways of doing things once training is over.
The problem generally lies in what leadership training programs are designed to address. Are you simply going through the motions to tick a box, or are you targeting real problems and opportunities?
Many points of deficiency are rooted in:
- Lack of clarity around high priority leadership roles and capabilities
- Focus on generic leadership skills over unique leadership capabilities
- Training not being tailored to the needs of your environment
- Lack of 360 feedback from those around leaders
- No or poor enablement post-training.
What do you get by combining the above? Well, it’s more about what you don’t get: An idea of what training is needed to bridge capability gaps in individuals. You’ll also miss out on what leadership capabilities are urgent for your organisation to develop. So, on both fronts, you’re missing impact and ROI.
Basically, if the system doesn’t change, behaviours can’t. Leadership training starts with what you have in place to support them.
Types of leadership development programs
As mentioned, leaders generally exist at a few critical organisational levels. In turn, the leadership training provided to them should reflect the most valuable skills, knowledge, behaviours and tools for their everyday. So, before we get into creating a leadership training program, let’s talk about the different types of leadership training.
Time-poor senior executives generally lean more towards a one-on-one approach to training. (They’ve likely also seen and done a lot of the other types of training on this list.)
Executive coaching involves one-on-one coaching sessions with an experienced executive coach who provides guidance, feedback, and support to help leaders improve their performance and effectiveness. You can also flip it and encourage your executives to become coaches, sharpening and flexing their coaching skills.
New or emerging leaders are the most common learners found in leadership workshops. However, a case can be made for sticking experienced leaders into the workshop ring, especially if there are new entrants into the greater leadership team and you want them all to have some bonding time.
Workshops are usually run offsite or onsite by an external facilitator. Hands-on leadership training has a few advantages, including:
- A chance for leaders to validate new ideas and concepts through shared something.
- Objective guidance from that external facilitator.
- Opportunity to develop interpersonal skills.
Retreats also fall under the umbrella of workshops, though they’re not viable for all organisations.
Mentoring & coaching
Formal coaching and mentoring is a great way to help new leaders find their leadership style, as well as create new channels of communication in your organisation. They’re best done across teams and functions, so that the coachee/coach relationship doesn’t reflect an existing one (and therefore assume existing biases) and so you can ensure broader business understanding for the coachee.
On the other hand, informal coaching can be between a leader and their direct report, generally with the intention of training the latter on specific capabilities for career progression.
Otherwise known as action learning projects, these are on-the-job training opportunities. There are real-world outcomes for the project, which is generally done within a group (for example, a newly-formed leadership team).
Stretch assignments are usually best done at the end of a training program to utilise and reinforce newly learned knowledge. Sometimes, this may mean working on a project for another department in order to enhance their broader business perspective. (Hint: This is that post-training enablement we previously talked about.)
Online training programs
The most common and easily accessible form of training is online in delivery. Look at learning management systems as a central source of truth for both everyday problems and ongoing development plans.
The former means you can create content that enables leaders to identify and address an issue in the moment of need (e.g. effective communication in performance reviews with a direct report). The latter allows you to create long-term leadership training (important for meeting succession plans) that creates that talent pipeline we talked about earlier.
Developing a leadership training program
On the note of long-term leadership and management training, let’s look at actually creating a development program.
Once you’ve got the foundations right, you’ll be able to mix and match the exact methods for individual employees. In the meantime, let’s lay those foundations.
Step 1: Identify objectives
As most leadership training programs fail without a north star, we’d be remiss to skip this.
Building leadership capability is an act of business iteration or transformation—the point is to create continuous business value. Ergo, you need an end goal that acts as a point of reference, or an outcome against which you can measure progress.
This can be done by understanding what business needs are served by developing specific leadership capabilities. Look to your leadership capability framework here. If you don’t have one, take inspiration from this free list of leadership capabilities and consider what is essential for work to get done in a) the different functions in your organisation and b) the industry in which you exist.
Side note: There’s a reason we ask you to think in terms of the tools, knowledge, behaviours and skills needed rather than specific roles. Roles are fixed (so not necessarily sustainable) and shaped by capabilities, whereas capabilities are designed to outlast job trends. However, if you’re designing training to create certain career pathways, it doesn’t hurt to factor roles in too.
So, creating credible metrics involves understanding what is lacking in your organisation that is hindering (or will hinder in future) its ability to achieve its goals. Think of this as prioritisation. Some leadership capabilities will be functioning at full potential or maturity and therefore in need of maintenance, not development. Rule of thumb is always what’s going to move the needle most when defining objectives.
Step 2: Assess performance needs
The flip side of the “why do we need this training?” coin is the individual performance needs of leaders. This is a prescriptive step, so we’re going to give you the outline for what you can do for each individual.
Capability assessments are the best way to do this. To add a layer of accountability and personal motivation, start with a self-assessment that gets leaders to evaluate their own performance of certain capabilities. Assessment should use a scale of competency of proficiency, such as:
This information is best merged with a manager assessment, wherein the leader’s manager evaluates them on the same capabilities. Additionally, depending on the complexity of capabilities, you may want to utilise subject matter expert or 360 assessments. Executives usually benefit from a 360 view of feedback, while leaders working in IT, marketing and design may have niche or specialist skillsets that require an SME’s guidance.
As part of the process of diagnosing capability gaps, needs analyses can be used to determine what is the most relevant learning path forward. It’s also a failsafe way to ensure that the investment you put into leadership development will have an impact.
Step 3: Determine training methods
When you have the lay of the landscape, you can figure out what kinds of training are best suited to bridge capability gaps.
Refer back to the types of leadership training we listed above. Depending on if the leader in question is new or experienced, you can use some combination of training to address needs.
To make this work at scale, we recommend:
- Creating evergreen leadership training content. Think topics such as emotional intelligence and conflict resolution—capabilities that lend themselves to practice over theory and require flexing in the day to day. Incidentally, these are also examples of capabilities that all leaders will need to possess, and this content can be used for post-training enablement.
- Utilising cohorts. Group workshops serve two purposes at once: Team bonding and shared accountability (great for time-sensitive leadership plans). Topics that lend themselves to group learning are those that can present problems in the workplace but are slightly more complex, including leadership styles, talent management and employee engagement. Plus, cohorts are a great way to expand the networks in your organisation with a diverse group of leaders.
- On-the-job training. Where a training class or course imparts knowledge, project-based training puts it into action. This is often where the rubber hits the road, particularly for new leaders. It’s also a way to offer ongoing support to reinforce learning, such as through mentoring and coaching.
Step 4: Measure impact
Determining training efficacy has a few uses. Firstly, it ensures you’re continually improving on an L&D through line in the organisation. Secondly, it evaluates how impactful leadership training has been on the business. And thirdly, it looks at how effective a leadership training program is from start to finish.
But above all, you want to be sure that short-term growth leads to a long-term impact for the organisation. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data will provide the most holistic view of impact, and will give you the most solid data to show to stakeholders.
As with any training, the Kirkpatrick evaluation model is a good basis. It starts with gauging learner reaction—think feedback and surveys to understand training relevance and job satisfaction. Continual performance reviews by managers can assess time to proficiency and any ongoing trouble areas, while high-level metrics like retention, revenue growth and employee engagement are markers of business impacts.
The impact of not doing leadership training
Culture starts and ends with leaders. That’s workplace culture, learning culture, performance culture—all the desired behaviours you need to drive sustainable capability.
For further context, leaders:
- Enact the change they want to see. Without this over time, leaders lose the social capital needed for any change or transformation, which means your organisation won’t be adaptable or resilient in the face of turmoil.
- Role model company values. They care about wellbeing, and they boost retention because of it. On the other hand, when leaders don’t prioritise healthy workplaces, employees follow suit and unsustainable hours, overbearing workloads and toxic behaviours become the norm.
- Act as conduits for knowledge by providing experiential learning opportunities, coaching employees on their expertise, and promoting formal learning programs. If they don’t, strategic knowledge stagnates with them and employees aren’t given all the resources needed to build capability.
- Translate strategy. Leaders can create a story around the big picture; without it, employees working in the weeds don’t always understand the business opportunity behind said work.
In short: If leaders don’t start with the right foundation, your workforce certainly isn’t going to perform to the standard you need.
Leadership training is the key ingredient for resilient, agile leaders. The next most important element is a robust set of leadership skills, behaviours, knowledge and tools—or capability.
In this way, think of leadership training as an act of business transformation. You’re defining and developing the capabilities that are critical to success, and giving leaders personal motivation to invest part of their careers with your organisation.
Depending on the performance outcomes, there are four L&D levers to pull when designing leadership training.
- Aligning learning objectives with business needs
- Assessing talent and performance needs
- Mapping training methods to capability gaps
- Measuring leadership training impact.
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