3 Reasons Why Leadership Training Programs Fail

3 Reasons why Intensive Training Programs Fail to Develop Effective Leaders

I was inspired to write this post while watching a telecast of the 2016 Rio Olympic games. With a motto of “faster, higher, stronger” the Olympic movement is all about pushing people to their limits to see how well they can perform, thus separating the top .01% from the rest. At one level, I admire that goal but at another level I am concerned that some organisations are using one of these principles to develop new leaders. My issue is with the word “faster”. In my opinion faster isn’t always better and I want to explain why…

When we farm crops on a large scale, with the goal of quickly and efficiently producing food at the lowest possible cost it is described as intensive farming. The aim is to maximise the yield from the land using pesticides and chemical fertilisers. However, there are drawbacks to this approach in the long term. Some of them include soil degradation, chemical run off and the eradication of insects or microbes that aid soil health. In other words, intensive farming gives you short term gains but creates long term issues.

I believe the same is true when we attempt to develop new leaders using intensive development programs. You know the type of program, one where you lock people in a room for 5 days cramming their heads full of everything they need to know. In the short term, it seems like a good idea, as it is cost effective and efficient. However, it is not good for people in the long term and here are three reasons why:

  1. Information overload
    You wouldn’t give a plant all the water it needs for a year at once, so why do we think it’s a good idea to fill the heads of new leaders with so much information at once? It is not possible to retain all those ideas and it certainly isn’t the best way to ensure they fully understand important concepts. Think of it as like trying to drink from a fire hose! Short term they walk away thinking they have learnt a lot but long term they are unable to use the knowledge as their head is too full to access it.
  1. One size fits all approach
    These programs have to be a one size fits all in order to maintain their efficiency. There is no time for adjusting the content to suit the needs of different people whether it be in terms of learning styles, job role requirements or cultural nuances. It’s like giving a cactus and a fern the same amount of water and wondering why they both fail to grow.
  1. Artificial environment
    A training room is not a natural environment. It can’t possibly reflect the multitude of factors that a leader must deal with in performing their role. No matter how had you try it is not possible to overcome the artificial atmosphere. Just like plants grown in a greenhouse will struggle when moved outdoors, new leaders will find the going tough to implement their learning when they return to their work environment.

For these reasons, and others, it is my experience that intensive development programs do not create the best leaders. What does work is coaching. It could be coaching on its own or coaching combined with self paced or online learning. This way, new leaders have an opportunity to try out new ideas and be supported in bringing theory to life. That is why I have moved my business away from workshops and now focus on coaching, whether it’s for individuals or leadership teams.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of coaching, then download my free article “Stop training your frontline leaders and start coaching them” by clicking here.


How to make a strong case for developing frontline leaders

With frontline leaders being responsible for up to 80% of your workforce and making up 50% of your leadership team it is vital that they are able to perform their roles effectively. When they struggle, it has a direct impact on your organisation. If you are having trouble convincing decision makers to spend money on developing your struggling frontline leaders I may have the answer.

The issue of a lack of investment in frontline leadership development was highlighted recently with the release of the first in depth study of Australian leaders in 20 years. The Centre for Workplace Leadership’s Study of Australian Leadership surveyed nearly 8,000 leaders and employees from 2,703 organisations. An alarming finding it quoted was that for every $10 employers in the Asia Pacific region spend on senior leaders, just $1 is spent on frontline leaders.

When you consider the important role that frontline leaders play in the success of any organisation it is clear we have a problem. That’s why I am determined to change that ratio. So, if you work in HR, L&D or lead a division of your organisation and need to get the powers that be to approve spending on frontline leadership programs I want to help.

I suggest you make your case by presenting them with a calculation of what those leaders are costing the organisation and compare that to the cost of a development program. There is nothing like talking money to get the attention of people at the top who, after all, usually come from a profession that thinks in terms of facts and numbers (ie accounting, law, sales, tech).

Here is a very simple calculator that can help you prove your point.

Number of frontline leaders 10
x Average salary (no on-costs) $ 50,000
= Cost to the organisation $ 500,000
Savings if they were 10% more productive $ 50,000

Of course, if your frontline leaders were more productive this would have a direct impact on the people they lead. Let’s add in what that could mean.

Number of people they lead each 5
x number of teams 10
x Average salary (no on-costs) $ 30,000
= Cost to the organisation $1,500,000
Savings if they were 10% more productive $ 150,000
Potential savings to the organisation $ 200,000

Now if you compare these very conservative numbers to the cost of a development program (say, $4,000 per person) you could be looking at a potential return on investment of 500% over the course of 12 months. If the program generated more than a 10% increase in performance the return would be even greater. That sounds like the kind of investment that would get the attention of most decision makers.

Remember, this formula uses base salary only so the real return is even higher when you take into account on costs.

I encourage you to do the calculation for your organisation or division and work out your potential return on investment. Of course, you need to ensure you choose the right program and have a way of measuring the improved performance it is generating. If you can get those aspects right, I suspect you will find that getting budget approval for future development programs will be significantly easier.

The missing step that causes frontline leadership development programs to fail

Leaders are vital to the success of any organisation and we spend huge amounts of money every year developing them. The problem is that most of that development fails to yield the hoped-for outcomes of increased productivity, reduced turnover and higher employee engagement. In fact, sometimes it does the exact opposite.

This is particularly true when you are developing people who are in their first leadership position. I call them frontline leaders but you might use the term team leader, supervisor or leading hand.

Hopefully before they start in their new role they attend a program to give them the necessary skills. In theory that seems the right thing to do but the process often fails in practice.

In an attempt to solve this problem many organisations spend extra time, money and effort to improve their development offering such as:

  • Accredited or qualification based programs
  • More frequent sessions
  • Alternate delivery methods eg online, self-paced
  • Better vetting techniques for the presenters

Whilst these strategies certainly do make a difference to the outcome I think there is a very important first step that is essential to success.


For any new leader to succeed there is some important preparation that must happen. I liken it to the preparation a gardener would do before planting. Gardeners know that if you take a healthy plant and put it in unhealthy soil it will struggle to survive or at least take longer than necessary to mature so that is why they spend time improving the soil. Equally the gardener knows that the plant itself needs to be prepared for its new location so they have what is called a “hardening off” period when moving it from a protected greenhouse into the garden.

Before you put your plan in place you need to ensure that everyone involved in the process is prepared to play their part.

I find that this is a step that many organisations either skip over entirely or don’t pay enough attention to. In many ways, it is the key to maximising the impact of the other three phases and does not have to be time consuming or costly to implement. It is about creating a culture that will allow new leaders to thrive.

This means preparing both your existing leaders and your new leaders so that the transition process is as smooth as possible. If you don’t there is a risk your new leaders will fail which, according to research by Development Dimensions International in 2012, happens about 28% of the time.

To me, preparation is one of the 4 key steps in effectively development your leaders. I call it the Practical Leadership Development model. Working with organisations across many sectors I see too many of them making the same mistake.

They focus on developing a Plan then skip over the Preparation phase and go straight to Nurturing people via a development program and then follow up with the occasional session to Maintain their skills.

That is what I have consistently found when conducting my Leadership Development Stock take. After taking clients through my 40-point checklist and producing a report on the outcomes, many are surprised to find that they can dramatically increase the results they get from their programs without spending a lot of money. All they have to do is take care of the Preparation phase.

Karen Schmidt from Let’s Grow! is the frontline leadership expert.
As a speaker, coach and facilitator she works with frontline leaders and the people who develop them.
Her mission is to grow frontline managers into frontline leaders so they perform better, which improves team productivity, giving senior leaders peace of mind.
To learn about her services, visit

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