How to make leadership development effective

How to make leadership development effective

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA
01. Nov 2020 | 24 min read

How to make leadership development effective

Despite being a major global industry worth about $70 Billion, Leadership Development is beset by scepticism. Many believe there is no pay-off as they see that 3 main challenges remain unsolved:

  • Needs – programmes don’t accurately fit participants’ needs
  • Transfer – what is learned isn’t applied back at work
  • Measurement – it is too difficult to measure outcomes

Research into the improvements made over the past 30 years show that there can be a good pay-off if certain criteria are fulfilled. This article describes the main improvements and takes that thinking a few steps further, showing how innovative digital technologies can be applied to boost pay-off on a consistent basis.


Many managers and HR professionals do  not believe that leadership development programmes are effective. The literature is full of surveys documenting that organisations don’t think they are getting bang for their buck.

I was sceptical as well. I was responsible for HR in a company with operations in 26 countries and sales in 100. We had only one permanent leadership programme, for new managers. New Manager needs are undeniable and very similar, and it is easy to create a programme that gives real value. There were short-term upskilling stunts in technology areas, but I made sure there were no other permanent corporate programmes. I was pretty militant.

I now think I was simply not knowledgeable or creative enough to design programmes that worked.

By the way, ‘leadership development’ is used here to mean structured programmes aiming to improve leadership skills and develop the individual. Educational programmes based around specific courses in subjects like marketing, accounting or digitalisation are not included.


Leadership development: unsolved challenges to making it work

People’s scepticism is based on three key challenges not being solved.



The most basic of those is meeting participants’ needs.

Feed the need photo Markus Spiske

There is no point in including topics that are not experienced as relevant by participants. They have to feel a real need  to learn, either because the topic hits home personally or because they can see immediately how to apply what they learn in their own context, preferably to solve a pressing need. Lack of complete relevance, or delay until the learning becomes relevant, kills the effect of any development programme.

The organisation is often pretty good at defining organisational needs like more innovation, better co-operation or sharper thinking. The logic is that all managers need to develop in the key areas, but it is very difficult to make these needs, that are defined top-down, relevant to Mike and Mary Manager in Order Handling or Finance. Mike and Mary often do not recognise the need for themselves or their context.

Have a look at our article How to meet participant needs in leadership development programmes  for some pointers on how to deal with the Needs challenge



The second challenge is how the learning should be transferred  so that it is applied in practice. It would be great if the new competence just jumped from “Best Practice” research through a programme to the workplace. But that just does not happen.


Even if the learning is relevant for real needs, it can still be difficult to transfer it from an off-site context to real life. To be as relevant as possible for all participants, programmes teach generalised concepts and approaches. It is challenging to translate generic concepts into useful practice.

In addition, the work context the participant comes back to after training can be problematic. For example, the participant’s colleagues can ignore, not be curious about or resist any new ideas and changes. The participant’s boss is often not close enough to the situation to provide relevant support. Even worse, the boss can often negate new approaches through disinterest or lack of information. And everyone’s days are so busy that it is difficult to find time and things are quickly forgotten.



The third challenge is how to measure the impact  of any particular programme. It is especially difficult to tie programmes to bottom-line results.

Measure the impact photo Austin Distel

Organisations really struggle to prove that what is learned in a development programme impacts results like more efficiency, stronger innovation or happier colleagues.

For such a large industry it is a disaster not knowing whether the investment pays off.

We outline some answers to the Measurement problem in How to measure the impact of leadership development  .


With these three challenges it is no wonder so many organisations do not believe that they are getting a return on their investment in leadership development.


Leadership development: improvements already made

Organisations and leadership developers are aware of these challenges and have been working to overcome them for 30 years. A very thorough meta-analysis performed by Lacarenza in 2017 , summarising the findings of 335 individual studies, shows that good practice can work. Leadership development drives results when it is delivered in the right way.


Results of leadership development: how they are measured

The researchers used the classic Kirkpatrick framework for  their research. The idea is that there are 4 types of effect, each one leading to another, each more important than the last.

Kirkpatrick framework

The first is that the Reaction has to be positive, supporting effective Learning that leads to changes in Behaviour that drive Results.

That sounds simple but it is especially hard to measure levels 3 and 4. So called ‘smile sheets’ filled in after a session give data for level 1; tests of retention for level 2. Few apply such tests, but they are quite easy to do, in theory.

Have a look at How to measure the impact of leadership development  for some answers. With traditional leadership development it takes a major research effort to measure level 4 Results. Most organisations are not able to allocate the necessary resources.


Criteria for effective leadership development

Lacarenza found that the effect on results was greatest for programmes  that:

  1. Based content on a needs analysis. If the programme focuses on things the participants have to deal with in their everyday work, they will pay attention.

  2. Provided feedback. Learning is more effective if you know if what you are doing has the desired effect. An absence of feedback leads to potentially wrong learning or loss of interest.


  3. Used multiple delivery methods, especially practice. The variation keeps the participants’ attention and motivation up. Practice makes the learning real. This is called ‘blended learning’.

  4. Used spaced training sessions. This allows for practice in-between and avoids packing more than participants can cope with into each session.

  5. Were run on-site. This is only relevant for physical training and is compared to off-site. Doing things on-site brings the learning closer to reality.

Size of improvement to leadership development programmes

Lacarenza found that well designed leadership training programmes give significant effects at all 4 levels of the Kirkpatrick framework of measurement.

  • At level 2, well designed programmes gave a 25% increase in Learning
  • At level 3, programmes fulfilling the best practice criteria led to a 28% increase in the desired leadership Behaviours in the job. The learning had been transferred.
  • At level 4,
    • the individual leader performed 20% better
    • there was a 25 % increase in organizational Results

Amazing results photo Brooke Cagle

These results are amazing  and very encouraging. They put sceptics like me to shame. The question remains how to operationalise the findings in practice.


Making leadership development work in practice

We have 3 recommendation regarding leadership development work.

  1. Process: First, and most importantly, don’t just focus on the programme or learning activity. Development is a long-term process. Focus on what happens before and after the programme.
  2. Context: Second, relate everything back to the participant’s context, all the time.
  3. Accountability: Finally, reinforce accountability for everyone, not just the participant but everyone around them like their boss, colleagues, co-participants etc.

Like all high-level recommendations, the value lies in unpacking  them.

Unpacking value photo we-vibe-wow-tech

The content is often more interesting and challenging than the plain wrapping might suggest.


Think about leadership development as a process

Effective leadership development is the sum of the steps in a process, not a learning event. HR is often too focused on the event, and too little on the overall process.

We believe that organisations should apply the following process:

Need → Baseline → Prepare → Engage → Apply → Measure

The ‘Engage’ step refers to the leadership development programme itself. The focus is to engage the participants. The other steps occur before and after. The sum of all 6 steps drives the programme’s impact. The organisation should support the participant in moving through each of these steps. Each step is described below.


Map Needs

Learning is a process that starts with a need. Change doesn’t come without one. Rehabilitation for an alcoholic starts with “My name is Jim; I am an alcoholic”. In making such a statement publicly, Jim recognises the unacceptability of the status quo and the need to do something about it. He will now be open to learning new ways of mastering his challenges.

I have needs photo Arjunsyah

Recognising personal development needs is complicated at the best of times. For leaders in an over-busy world have their own particular challenges. Aggregating those needs for the multiple cohorts that go through leadership development programmes is also difficult. No wonder Needs is one of the 3 key challenges. Have a look at our article How to build a needs-based leadership development programme   for some answers.


Set Baseline and Measure impact

Leadership development costs money and time. We often have little of both. We need to make sure that our investment is paying off. Taking the extra time involved in defining a baseline and measuring effect against that baseline, is a ‘must do’.

Set baseline photo Annie Spratt

Using before and after 3600 measurements is the most common way of doing this. It isn’t very complicated but there are a number of pitfalls to be avoided. Have a look at our article How to measure the impact of leadership development  for a practical guide to how to do this.


Ensure people Prepare

Clarifying the need, defining the baseline and setting a date for a programme are all part of preparation. But there is more. The more prepared and eager the participant, the better the learning outcome.

 It is like packing  to get ready for a trip. As you pack you visualise what can happen, develop strategies for dealing with challenges, and come up with new ideas for what you could do.

Prepare photo Alice Donovan Rouse

 There are many practical things the participant can engage in that build excitement and expectation:

  • Make plans with a boss, mentor, or coach, discussing the support they will need
  • Focus in on specific challenges, interviewing stakeholders to involve them in the process
  • Pre-reading or taking digital modules
  • Chatting to past participants


Build Engagement

Learning programmes have to be absorbing and engaging. Ideally , they should be seen as life-changers. This is rare for drier topics but not impossible. We have experience of both creating, running and participating in leadership development programmes that have changed lives.

Engage photo Stephen Leonardi

We recommend 5 hacks for boosting engagement:

  1. Make participants fail
  2. Create space for reflection
  3. Use a wide blend of potent learning techniques
  4. Use the 3Us framework faithfully for all digital programmes
  5. Maximise participation

Each of these is described in the article How to boost engagement in leadership development programmes.  



Lastly, Apply. Mastery takes a lot of active practice. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule for the Beatles or Bill Gates to achieve excellence in what they do is imprecise but sets the frame correctly. 

Digitalisation can also help participants apply learning more effectively. Short digital attention spans  mean that sessions are best kept short, preferably less than 2 hours.

Short attention span photo Adrian Swancar

Programmes should be spread out over time. This leads to learning in the programme being applied immediately after the session and discussed in the session the next day.

Short attention spans also mean that things must be simplified, and learning goals sharpened. Content designers are more disciplined as they cannot rely so much on the trainer to manage the flow. Learning is chunked in smaller packages and better structured. This is easier to apply.


Relate everything back to the participant’s context, all the time

This recommendation builds on what is written above on needs, building engagement and focusing on application, but goes further.

It points to standing in the participant’s shoes  rather than being caught up in ‘you’ as the facilitator or program designer, wanting to communicate a message, be effective or clever, and shine yourself.


This is difficult in work life. Employees are rewarded for being active, competent, and full of initiative. Targets, short term pressure and competition all push us to being caught up in our own stuff.

 The people designing and delivering leadership have their own particular challenges as well. The HR function, that usually owns such programmes, is often viewed as a soft function that needs to prove its value. Being seen to be knowledgeable and business oriented is the route to respect. Helpfulness can contribute too but is often taken for granted, giving less of a respect pay-off.

External trainers and consultants have an even tougher time truly putting participants first, whatever they say. The external person must prove their worth just to get paid. At least HR has job security. The external lives off their competence, on an hourly basis, and must demonstrate it continually.

The concept of “Servant Leadership ” can help as a mindset for the people working in leadership development. As Robert K. Greenleaf (who first launched the concept) said, the servant-leader is servant first, as opposed to many leaders that are leader-first. They are extreme opposites.

servant leadership

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people…shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

The key to making such a mindset work is to prove its value by measuring outcomes. Have a look at How to measure the impact of leadership development  for some tips.

And lastly, the most commonly mentioned barrier to acting on what is learned is lack of time.

Protection from overload photo Luis Villasmil

Part of relating everything to the participant’s context also means needing to be protected from overload .  


Reinforce accountability for everyone.

Our last recommendation for making leadership development work in practice is to reinforce accountability for everyone. This means the leader’s team, boss, boss’ boss, colleagues, HR and the training provider. It also means creating new roles such as in-class learning partner and at-work learning partner. Mutual accountability between the participant and this community considerably increases the chances of success.

And of course, the most important person to make accountable for the participant’s learning is the participant themselves.  



Making leadership development work in practice is very challenging. There are major differences between how well organisations manage the development of their leaders. Following the 3 simple recommendations described above can help:  

  1. Process: You can’t cut corners. Leadership development is complex and our approach to leadership development needs to match that complexity. Development is a long-term process. Focusing on what happens before and after the programme is active management of more of the development process. This increases the effectiveness of the organisation’s leadership development activities.
  2. Context: It is all too easy to operate at a distance to the participants. Relating everything back to the participant’s context, all the time, can close this gap. This makes development activities more relevant, and easier for the participant to transfer to the work context.
  3. Accountability: Many people influence the outcome for each participant. These people are therefore part-accountable for whether a leadership development programme works. Reinforcing accountability for everyone, e.g. their boss, colleagues and co-participants, supports learning and its ultimate impact on results.



If you like what you have read download our e-book. We have applied our own medicine to a programme that supports a manager’s success inside their first 100 days in a new role. Supporting  success early is the most effective approach of all to leadership development!

Free ebook about how leadership success is created in a new role

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Organisational psychologist with an MBA. Broad top management experience spanning many industries, functions and countries, including 10 years with corporate responsibility for HR. Extensive experience as consultant in private, public and voluntary sectors. A number of board positions in the education and culture sectors. Started career as counsellor for drug and alcohol abusers.

Follow our blog

We write professional blogs worth a read.
Follow the blog for a sneak peek of the future!

You may also read

Springboarding for people-leaders in new roles

May 10, 2021 - Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Springboarding for people-leaders in new roles

Leaders need help to succeed in a new role when so much changes, and expectations are so high. Springboarding..

The Google method of effective leadership development

Nov 01, 2020 - Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

The Google method of effective leadership development

We all use google searches to find answers to our questions. We often look at the videos google suggests for..

The most effective leadership development approach possible

Nov 01, 2020 - Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

The most effective leadership development approach possible

Many are sceptical to the return on the investment made in leadership development. A promising new approach..