Why Leadership Training Fails – and what to do about it

Dr Brett Heyward

You know it in your gut. You’ve experienced it on several occasions – the blush of undergoing a leadership intensive, only to return to the workplace, and find yourself slipping back into the habits of a lifetime –  the “same ol’; same ol’.”  You know there is a better way, but you can’t muster what it takes to make it happen.

Veteran Harvard luminary, Michael Beer, and his fellow researchers, Finnstrom and Schrader nail “what goes wrong with leadership training” with this recent addition to the Harvard Business Review stable.

It mightn’t come as a too much of a shock to you, but to see the reasons why leadership training exercises fail, is a little confronting to someone who has devoted much of his life to classroom-based leadership activities.

Beer and Co. identify six “silent killers” of leadership training, by setting out the key factors that need to be in place for leadership training to succeed.  Without these factors being in place, the chances of a successful leadership development activity taking hold are incredibly slim.  The key factors needed to support leadership training are:

  1. The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction.
  2. After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.
  3. Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design.
  4. The organization adds training where needed.
  5. Success in changing behavior is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
  6. Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behavior.

Have I been living a lie for most of my professional life? Or, maybe, I’ve been a little too harsh on myself?  My research and professional career has taught me that leadership training by itself does little to change an individual, unless she/he is willing to address the barriers to transformational change within their own organisation.

Training is just one ingredient in a bottom-up, top-down, organisation overhaul that needs to occur in order to achieve a successful, organisation-wide, turn around in performance.  Moreover, any step to inculcate senior leaders with new ideas and approaches to leadership, without the “at the shoulder support” from a highly-skilled organisation development specialist, runs a significant risk of crashing on the rocks of change.  As the article highlights, coaching from a qualified specialist is critical in order to translate new learnings into changed behaviours.  This factor, along with removing the barriers to successful change (eg. Poor strategic direction and positive role modelling from the entire executive team), increases the chances of success, exponentially. The message is simple: if you’re investing in leadership courses, and you’re not investing in executive coaching at the same time, you’re doing it wrong!

For more information on Coaching and Mentoring leadership contact Dr Brett Heyward brett.heyward@qut.edu.au


Brett comes to QUT with a wealth of experience in the public and private sectors. He has led large agencies in Health, Natural Resources and Mining, as well as holding senior roles in the consulting industry. Early in his career he managed manufacturing businesses and held roles in environmental science management. Brett received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Queensland, majoring in Accounting. He added to this with a Masters in Administration (focused on Change Management), and a PhD focused on competition policy frameworks in national and provincial governments. As a Professor of Practice with QUT, Brett coordinates and contributes to many of the leadership subjects in the Graduate School of Business, including the Business Leadership Practicum and Personal Leadership and Change in the EMBA and MBA programs. He also facilitates leadership development and coaching activities with corporate clients including several large businesses in the retail and manufacturing industries, as well as large public sector agencies, particularly those with commercial or “self-funded” operations. Brett is also a Chief Investigator for QUT’s Centre of METS Business Innovation (CMBI) and contributes to research there. In addition, Brett is often sought after to review research in the fields of mining and resources generally, as well as engage with corporate leaders in this area, particularly on the topics of government regulation and leadership development. He is also very interested in progressing institutional strengthening activities in developing countries, and is currently supporting research into aged care and disability support services in Vietnam. Brett loves sport and devotes much of his “free time” to coaching (largely Rugby League and Cricket), as well as supporting the development of sporting expertise, particularly in back office functions and high performance systems (a major focus of his early consulting career).

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