6 reasons corporate leadership training fails – and how you can fix it

A great company leader is someone who can inspire their team, enhance each employee’s unique strengths, build comradery, and, ultimately, improve the team’s productivity and results. Good leaders earn the loyalty of top talent and push their teams to excel. That makes them an extremely valuable asset, which might explain why, according to the 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey developed by Deloitte, “89% of executives…rated the need to strengthen, reengineer, and improve organizational leadership as an important priority.” U.S. companies are willing to put their money where their priorities are, spending $160 billion on employee training and education in 2015.

Is all of this expensive leadership training worth the money? In a seminal article for the Harvard Business Review, researchers Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader answer with an emphatic no. The research seems to back up their contention, with the 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey finding that 56% of executives report “their companies are not ready to meet today’s leadership needs.”

Why does costly leadership training so often fail to shift a company’s culture and improve team or departmental outcomes, and how can today’s businesses invest in their leadership team to spark long-term positive change?

Why corporate leadership training fails

For their article in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Beer, Finnström, and Schrader take a deep dive into modern business culture and define six specific barriers to change that often prevent leaders from implementing the new perspectives and strategies they learn in leadership training courses. These “silent killers”, as the researchers call them, are:

  1. Conflicting priorities created when leaders don’t clearly articulate the direction, strategy, and values of the company
  2. Poor teamwork and lack of commitment to change by senior executives
  3. Employees who feel uncomfortable providing honest and authentic feedback to their managers, especially when it comes to identifying problems
  4. An organizational design that results in weak coordination across different departments and business units
  5. Leaders who don’t take the time or make an effort to nurture talent or address talent issues
  6. Fear among employees about addressing dysfunction in how the organization operates

Beer, Finnström, and Schrader explain that they often see multiple silent killers occurring simultaneously in many of the struggling companies they consult with.

Perhaps more importantly, the researchers find that many CEOs and company leaders make one crucial misjudgment when they seek out leadership training. They assume that weaknesses in leadership rest squarely on the shoulders of individual employees.

This is a convenient perspective because it offers a clear problem and an easy fix – leadership training. Unfortunately, this viewpoint fails to acknowledge the significant power of corporate culture. As Beer, Finnström, and Schrader explain, “Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organizational design and managerial process first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching and classroom or online education.”

Another way of saying this is that positive change can only happen when a company is ready and willing to embrace that change. Far too often, leaders return from their training filled with motivation, strategies, and ideas only to slam into all the same red tape and entrenched habits that caused the dysfunction in the first place. If their boss isn’t willing to support them in implementing change and if their team won’t make the effort to change their behavior, even the best leader can’t succeed. This, in a nutshell, is why most leadership training fails. (Want to improve employee engagement? Take a look at 5 companies that excel at employee engagement.)

So, then, what’s the solution?

How to make corporate leadership training stick


Is corporate leadership training always a waste of money? Not necessarily, but before you spend big on polishing up your best employees, you must give them the chance to succeed. That doesn’t start with leadership training. Rather, the leadership training must happen after a team and its leaders are ready and willing to change.

Just as Beer, Finnström, and Schrader identified six reasons leadership training fails, they also propose six steps companies can take to get the most out of leadership training. They are:

  1. Define the values and strategic direction of the company
  2. Perform candid and anonymous interviews with managers and employees to diagnose the “silent killers” that could stymie any attempts at change. Once the silent killers are identified, develop solutions to overcome them, which may include redesigning roles, responsibilities, and relationships.
  3. Implement ongoing coaching to help reinforce all the new changes
  4. Provide leadership training where needed
  5. Develop new metrics to evaluate changes within the company for both individuals and departments
  6. After reviewing the metrics, adjust your system to better develop and promote talent

Beer, Finnström, and Schrader believe that their new, proactive system diagnoses problems from the ground up. One of the biggest keys to the system is taking the time to gather candid feedback from employees so that you can truly confront the problems ailing your company. If your company and your team are plagued by silent killers, no amount of leadership training is likely to have a long-term, positive impact on your operation.

With Poll Everywhere for Enterprise, you can quickly create personalized and anonymous multiple-choice questions or open-ended polls that allow employees to provide feedback in their own words.

Too many companies believe a weekend leadership course or a pricey motivational speaker can help solve all their problems. In truth, the answer lies in starting with your company culture and creating an environment that allows your best leaders to succeed. Learn how Poll Everywhere can help your team thrive and enhance your corporate culture.