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Leadership Training and Development: Is There a Payoff?

8 min read
leadership development

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Published March 23, 2022

leadership development

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Picture of Cathy McCullough

Cathy McCullough
a Business Growth Consultant and Culture Expert with Rhythm Systems

In a study by McKinsey & Company, management development at all levels has been ranked as a #1 priority leadership developmentby 500 executives, and organizations throughout the U.S. are spending approximately $14 billion annually on leadership training. The expense of a custom-designed leadership development program can be very costly. The question, then, becomes: Does developing these leaders (executive-level, division heads, and emerging leaders) have a payoff?

The answer is: Yes…if

Yes if...your leadership development efforts are designed appropriately. All too often, companies simply delegate the development of a leadership program to their HR professionals. While this is good, it’s a tactical check-mark that “we’re doing that leadership development thing.” What your high-level directors of talent and culture need is your support to do it right.

Your ultimate outcome for developing leaders in the first place is to strategically increase the quality of thought, perspective, decision-making, communication, analysis, and critical thinking. This is the cutting-edge brainpower that will catapult your company into a long-term, sustainable future via a high-performance environment.

Yet, typical leadership programs operate like workshops. Leaders are introduced to theories and subject matter to enhance their knowledge of leadership. While this is certainly good, leadership development shouldn’t stop there.

Instead, let’s think about leadership development as a fluid, lifelong learning process. By putting a viable and impactful leadership program in place, the company can ensure that old knowledge and customs can continue while at the same time allowing newer, less seasoned leaders to experiment with strategically different leadership techniques. The right kind of leadership program enables an organization to be ready to produce effective leaders during periods of growth and during periods of change. Companies with ordinary leadership programs generally did not have sufficient leaders in place to respond to rapid growth and/or constant change. Companies were instead stifled by their void in leadership, which is not a viable return on leadership investment. Companies with a well thought out leadership program that coincides with some type of coaching will be able to handle the occasional organizational hiccups that come from change and growth – producing a huge return on leadership development.

So how do you get the ROI return on investment from leadership development?

Start with Why. Why are we even doing this program in the first place? I remember working with senior leaders to create a Corporate University Program for their Division Heads. Senior leaders were very clear with me about their desired outcomes, purpose, desired points of emphasis, etc. Yet, on day one of our first session, none of the divisional leaders knew why they were there (other than to participate in a leadership development program). They asked, “Why? Are we in trouble?”

leadership program

To get clear on the purpose for the program, I suggest that an Objective Statement be developed (and shared!) prior to (and during) the leadership program, which may be unique to each of your business units.

This leadership program is designed …

  • To… (Do what?)
  • In a way that… (Does what?)
  • So that… (Why? What are the business opportunities of doing this? How will it support the company? How will it help us shift from Point A to Point B? How will it help leaders and the company?)

Build in Personal Accountability. Kotter International suggests that participants should take 90% of the responsibility for directly applying the information they’re learning. This message of accountability should be repeated and reinforced over and over and over.  Team accountability starts with personal accountability as it is more effective to lead by example. 

Design Application-Oriented Content. In short, give context for the content. All leaders must obviously have the technical skills and business acumen to do the jobs they’ve been asked to do. However, they also need the leadership skill-sets that surround behavioral and emotional intelligence, and they need to understand the business relevance of effective leadership strategies. While theory is good, its impact is limited when presented in a vacuum. Open ‘theory’ into the world of direct application by allowing time for focused exercises around real-life workplace scenarios. Doing this also gives leaders opportunities for practice, so they can adapt theory and frameworks into their leadership behaviors. Practice always precedes mastery.

Include Touchpoints In-Between Sessions. The design should also include specific touchpoints (the design of which varies, depending on the overall focus of the program) that keep accountability for application high while also including peer-to-peer coaching. A side benefit of this is that it also begins to break down silo mentality by allowing leaders from across the organization to connect, talk, share, and learn—while also solving real business issues they routinely encounter.  It is just too easy to get caught up in day to day operations and the daily firefighting that the modern workplace requires, you need to be intentional with setting time aside to work on your personal leadership development. 

leadership assessment

Include Assessments. Self-assessments can heighten an individual leader’s perception of self—and how s/he tends to communicate, handle stress, lead change, relate to people, etc. The right kind of assessment(s) allow leaders to put behaviors into a framework, or context, vs. observing their own or the behaviors of others and drawing assumptions. Self-assessments can be validated and play a crucial role in understanding the behavioral elements that surround each person’s own leadership tendencies and style. Whether assessments are personality-based (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—the leadership version), behavior-based (such as emotional intelligence), or purely leadership based (such as a Leadership 360 assessment), valuable information can be gleaned from each dimension. After all, “development” means growth—and growth can’t occur without changes in approach, style, and/or behavioral tendencies.

Measure Results. Create a way in which results can be measured, whether this is through the Leadership 360 process, statusing a strategic dashboard around where each participant wants to move the needle on his/her own leadership effectiveness, etc. For instance, American Express compares the average productivity of participants’ teams before and after the leader’s participation. A service organization does Leadership 360 Evaluations after Phase I of their leadership program, then again after Phase II.

Design for Lifelong Learning & Development. Leadership development should be a core part of your overall operating procedures. After all, it’s not an ‘event.’ It’s a journey. At Rhythm Systems, leadership programs are intentionally designed in phases, each over the course of one year, with touchpoints for accountability and ensured growth in-between sessions.

Shift The Thinking. Shift the thinking of your people by letting them know that your company is not a ‘training’ organization. Instead, tell them your company is a learning organization, and that means everyone who works for the company continually challenges themselves to new heights and insights. Secondly, your leaders are not ‘bosses;’ they’re ‘coaches.’ They’re held accountable for supporting and growing high performance in their people. How they lead… matters.  This isn't just the job of the human resources team, although they can certainly be a great partner to get the process initiated.   

All in all, leaders in today’s progressive companies welcome the challenge of raising the bar on leadership—both their own as well as those around them. From personal leadership to team leadership to strategic thinking leadership and decision-making, the maturity of a company’s leaders is what will impact bottom-line business results. According to Abbatiello, in an article for Deloitte University Press, seasoned and mature companies with well-designed leadership learning opportunities had 37% higher revenue per employee. These same companies also reported 9% higher gross profit margins.

From Executive Coaching to building Accountable Leaders and Teams, Rhythm Systems customizes their leadership development programs to do all of the above. We do this because our ultimate goal is to help high potential leaders reach their goals… and live their dreams of growing strong, healthy, high performance cultures that are sustainable over the long-haul—and they are cultures that produce healthy bottom-line results.  We work with you through the leadership journey and develop the leadership development experience to work optimally with your unique learning style.

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