Leadership development: Gloom at the top

A report into the impact of leadership development programmes suggests widespread dissatisfaction among participants. It’s time to listen and act.

Lack of management involvement is undermining efforts to improve leadership among UK organisations, according to a report by Development Dimensions International (DDI). The business leadership consultancy claims the UK is “particularly remiss” at failing to hold senior managers accountable for development programmes after only 36% of the 259 leaders surveyed said their bosses took responsibility for the results. Other serious shortcomings included inconsistency in the way programmes were deployed and failure to measure results.

The survey was conducted with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and forms part of DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2008-09. It found that only two in five UK leaders are satisfied with the way leadership is developed in their organisations. A similar proportion of HR professionals rated their programmes high quality.

The results are worrying because they show programme satisfaction levels have dropped back to the level they were at when the same question was first posed in 2001. Simon Mitchell, director of DDI, does not believe lack of investment is to blame, suggesting instead that all the quick wins have now happened so it is harder to make improvements. “It’s more difficult to get people impressed by the content of the programmes.”

Experts agree that senior management involvement in the execution of leadership programmes is crucial to their success. Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), stresses that top people have to push the programmes themselves otherwise commitment is likely to be lacking.


Margi Gordon, principal consultant at organisational development trust Roffey Park, says: “If a development programme is launched with a lot of razzmatazz, that needs to be continued senior managers should be continually engaged while people are going through the development.” She argues that this involvement should extend to senior people acting as mentors and sponsors and even participating in development programmes themselves. “If people at the top are not doing it, it sends a message to the rest of the organisation.”

One symptom of non-accountability is that programmes are not taken sufficiently seriously. Francois Moscovici, director of White Water Strategies, the leadership development specialists, says people who benefit most from participation often feel they do not need to attend. “The star performers are the ones who could benefit most but they tend not to attend.

“If you look at effectiveness studies of talent management programmes, the almost universal conclusion is that spending money on those who will most benefit from them has a tremendous impact.” His point is underlined in the survey that found programmes targeting those with the highest potential were of better quality than regular programmes and were generally better executed.

Moscovici suggests “punitive cross-charging” to overcome the problem of absenteeism. “Management will sometimes commission a programme but the bill will be picked up by HR. If those who commission get hit in the pocket by some sort of cross-charging, then there is an effect.”

Another reason for making senior managers accountable is that they are best placed to link them to the strategic aims of the business. The CIPD’s adviser for learning, training and development Martyn Sloman, says: “We argue there needs to be a shift away from the very traditional return on investment approach to return on expectation. There’s a lot more emphasis on what the value of the learning is and how it adds value to the strategic aims of the organisation.”


Services group Serco, which employs more than 40,000 people across a range of sectors, is trying to create a sense of ownership for leadership development among senior executives as well as accountability. Andrew Thompson, director of organisational development and change, explains: “The market that we operate in has changed a lot in recent years. To cope with increased competition and changed customer expectations, we have to offer more complex packages which involve different parts of our business working together.

“With this strategy, I have been building an understanding of our leadership model with the leadership population so they own the interventions and they start to create the pull factors to create the change they want to see.”

In the DDI survey, only 26% of those surveyed reported that the results of their programmes were formally measured.

Spellman argues that, without proper evaluation, it is difficult to sustain commitment from both the organisation and the individual. “You don’t have to have an HR specialist to do this. It’s a case of being really clear about what you want the programme to achieve then evaluating what you got out of it.

“Investors in People give help and advice in identifying the development needs at senior level as well as helping to evaluate the benefits of training. You might find a line manager who is really interested in people development issues so make him report to somebody on the board. It’s not rocket science.”

Roffey Park’s Gordon says a 360-degree feedback survey is worthwhile but adds: “It’s never a great way to measure because people’s expectations of the people who have been on the programme are always higher.” She believes talking to people about how they are doing things differently is often more illuminating. “Typically, people ask within six to eight months, relating the questions back to the goals of the programme. Actually ask them ‘what’s happened, what’s different, what’s got in the way?’ Feed back to senior leaders so they can respond to what has been said.”


Gordon warns that programmes can become worthless unless opportunities are created to put what has been learned into practice. “(Senior managers) are very focused on the task that needs to be done and fail to see the opportunities for developing people. We need to remind them that they need to delegate.” She adds that dissatisfaction with programmes is often a product of not being given more interesting tasks or seeing ideas quickly squashed once the participants are back at work.

Deploying programmes more consistently across locations is another way they could be improved, according to DDI, after only just over one-third of survey respondents said this was already happening. DDI’s Mitchell says it is hard to measure consistency and effectiveness if different departments are not talking the same language. “One of the big things companies are looking for at the moment is talent management and the rising stars of the future. That’s very difficult to do if looked at differently in each location or functions within an organisation.”

In multi-national organisations, however, the need for consistency may need to be weighed against cultural sensitivities. Mike Mister is global director of executive development for consultant Ernst & Young, which operates in more than 140 countries. He says that when, for example, subordinates are asked to give feedback on a partner’s performance, it may cause problems in countries where there is a strong tradition of respect for elders. “I think the bottom line, at least for me, is about learning to respect difference and, as part of that, to understand one’s own biases.”

Whatever the reasons for dissatisfaction with development programmes, surveys such as DDI’s only provide hints about how they can be addressed, according to the CIPD’s Sloman. “What they’re saying is ‘this is the thinking at present – now go ahead and find the solutions that work in your organisation’. I’ve worked for three major organisations and all the solutions that worked in them were radically different because of different business and strategic objectives and different styles and approaches to management.”

Case study: Naylor Industries

Building materials company Naylor Industries has sent directors and senior managers on the same week-long leadership development programme for the last five years.

Around 25 executives have now completed the course, which involves setting objectives beforehand and then completing a number of projects with groups of people from different business sectors and backgrounds.

Commercial director Helen MacIntosh says: “My objective was to be able to lead a completely different team of people. The tutors find ways of matching what you want through different challenges.”

The course is run by The Leadership Trust, whose regional sales director Gordon Seymour says: “We don’t give feedback as an organisation. That comes from colleagues in your group. Learning comes from your own experience.”

He adds that debriefs, which are done by line managers or somebody from the trust, involve deciding who in the workplace can give feedback on whether the objectives are being met.

MacIntosh says building meaningful relationships with staff, so they can be matched to tasks and teams that fit their personality and skills, is one of biggest benefits from the programme. “When you have a new project, we’re now much better at getting the right mix of skills. When we recruit people, we know what we’re looking for and are very precise about this.”

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