Why Leadership Training Doesn’t Work
Updated: Apr 13
Most leadership training programs are designed for ease of operational delivery within an organization, not for habit formation. They are event-based; meaning the training takes place over a day or two.
In a traditional one-day or two-day long workshop, you’ll increase your knowledge. You’ll learn several key insights and be excited to implement the 5–10 new learnings into your leadership toolkit immediately. Inevitably, you won’t be able to put all of these new learnings into action.
After two or three weeks you might remember the concept but not how to implement the idea, and you’ll be lucky if you retain even two of the ten key points from the session. According to a McKinsey & Company Survey, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures. Cramming all the key learnings into one lengthy training makes logistical sense, but it greatly restricts learning retention.
Leadership training is aimed at giving leaders new skills, at helping them change their behaviors — to go from being a top individual contributor to a leader of people. As a leader, your success is dependent on the success of the people you’re leading. It’s quite a shift in perspective.
Simply learning what to do over the course of one-to-two days doesn’t lead to acting differently in the long run.
How habit formation works in our brains.
Habit formation doesn’t just happen. Our brains aren’t wired to adopt a new habit that quickly. No matter how good and engaging the presentation is, habit formation takes time. It occurs when a new action, like the leadership skill of listening with intention and attention, is practiced over and over.
Each time you practice listening in this new way, neurons in your brain are firing and creating a new neural pathway. The more you practice, the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the easier it is for you to listen.
The neural pathway for listening can be created, or rediscovered, in one session, but for the
pathway to be strengthened you need to practice deliberately. Role playing with peers is a safe way to start, yet it doesn’t replace the real thing.
To practice effectively, you’ll need to try listening in a real-life scenario. Only once applied in the real world, you’ll get the feedback you need to validate, adapt and adjust your mental model of what it looks and feels like to listen with intention and attention.
Often real-world practice doesn’t go as planned, something goes wrong. It’s like trying to ride a bike for the first time, you’re going to fall. You need to reflect on what went wrong, what could be improved and what you can carry over to your next attempt at listening to learn a new habit.
If you are committed to challenging the status quo, to achieving results not excitement, to giving your leaders the tools and skills to transition from individual contributors to powerful leaders, here’s a process that works.
Phase 1) Learn. This is where the training on a new skill is delivered to a group of leaders. Leaders learn the skills, why they are valuable and how they theoretically can be applied to the workplace. This is where most workshops spend 90% of their time, I suggest only spending 15% of any workshop on the teaching or knowledge building phase. It’s simply not as crucial as the application.
Phase 2) Apply. It’s in this phase where leaders practice applying the new habits; it happens during in-training application and through real-world application.
In-training application occurs in the moment the leaders learn a new skill. It’s key to put them into practice applying the skill right away. Ideally, you’ll spend 80–90% of the time applying the new skill and reflecting on how it can be improved. By doing this, we are activating the neural pathway and strengthening it.
Part two of the application occurs in the real world, through the completion of a homework assignment. Applying the new skill outside of the safety of the workshop brings a whole new element to learning. It’s no longer structured, it can take a leader out of their comfort zone which is exactly where growth occurs.
Phase 3) Reflect. Reflection includes holding a short coaching debrief with the leader to reflect on what worked well and what could be done better.
The reflection phase serves two purposes. One, it holds the leader accountable to completing their homework. Two, it allows for the leaders to assess and evaluate how they did and how they can apply the new skills better in future interactions. They likely won’t perfect the delivery of a habit on their first attempt, so this phase is important to reemphasize how habit adoption is a learning process. Even though the leader is not actually practicing the new skill in this phase, the reflection process is still triggering the newly created neural pathway. By the end of this phase, a leader will have visualized, practiced or reflected on a singular habit hundred of times, turning it from a skill to a habit adopted.
Habit change requires commitment from the organization.
The Learn-Apply-Reflect model is designed to get your leaders practicing skills and putting them into action. The quicker and more frequently a leader can take a learning, apply it to a real-life situation and dissect their performance of it, the quicker a new skill becomes a habit.
Organizational change occurs when the behaviors of the individual leaders change. It starts right here, by working with your leaders on adopting the habits that will make your organization succeed.
Are you ready to commit the time and energy to experience the change you want?
Originally published in Forbes on February 23rd, 2018