Critics question value of leadership training

The future of corporate leadership schemes hangs in the balance unless they begin to prove their worth, management experts warn.

The warning comes in the wake of criticism of the BBC’s £35m leadership management course, which was branded a “fiasco” and a “misuse of the licence fee”.

Global organisations spend up to £34bn on leadership development every year, but too many courses don’t achieve results, according to a leading academic.

John Burgoyne, professor of management learning at the University of Lancaster and Henley Management College, said: “Some pays off, much of it is waste,” adding: “We can get more precise. You don’t have to spend more, you have to spend it more accurately.”

Speaking at the Institute of Leadership and Management’s People at the Heart of Leadership conference, Burgoyne said organisations want quantifiable measures rather than theoretical conclusions.

“The leadership movement needs to become evidence-based rather than faith-based,” he said. “It will either embrace the challenge, or be replaced by something hard-nosed.”

The lack of hard measurement was central to HR consultant Paul Kearns’ scathing criticism of the BBC’s leadership course at Ashridge management school.

Kearns, brought in by the corporation six months before the course was launched in September 2003, said the £5,000 cost per head for the course “has no link to any performance objectives”.

A BBC source told Personnel Today that the BBC was “perplexed” that six months after spending a few days observing the course, Kearns went public on his criticisms. Return on investment (ROI) is not the best model for a public sector organisation that has no bottom line and whose output is based on creativity, the source added.

ROI: To measure or not to measure?

Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of international management development at Cranfield:

 “Financial measures are the worst measures you can put on a leadership course. What you can do is measure changes in behaviour and attitude in the company over a period of time. You must take a mid- to long-term view and see opportunities being created in the future.”

Delma O’Brien, director of corporate communications at Ashridge management school:

 “Some benefits are tangible and measurable in terms of short-term financial impact, and others less so, as they involve the longer term development of staff. There can be no uniform metric to address all of these issues.”

Paul Kearns, HR consultant, Personnel Works Limited

 “Management schools that say return on investment (ROI) is not possible in leadership schemes are just admitting that their leadership programmes were never designed to achieve an ROI – they are damned by their own excuses. My criticism goes right to the heart of outmoded thinking in management schools.  They have avoided being accountable for far too long.”

Feedback from business

David Smith, HR director, Asda


“People pass on bad behaviour quicker than they do good behaviour so I believe to not invest in leadership training is foolish. [The style of leadership] will affect how staff feel and how they behave in front of customers. We measure the effectiveness of leadership training through a rolling survey of all the 130,000 people who work for us. Each month we survey about 25 stores and ask staff how [their managers] are behaving. Are the staff being thanked? Are they being given direction? Through this we are measuring the impact of what we are doing.”


Rory Murphy, joint general secretary, finance union Unifi


“Leadership training should not be given in isolation to employers, with staff told how it would impact on them. People tend to go away on courses and then come back and implement new ideas, which leave staff wondering what they are doing.”


Sue Conder, partner in the Human Capital practice at Deloitte


“If leadership courses are designed to have an impact on what the organisation is trying to achieve they are worthwhile. ‘Chalk and talk’ courses are a waste of money.”

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