The top 5 ways investment in L&D is wasted

Insight shared by:

Kiddy & Partners

Leadership development is a major source of competitive advantage for many organisations, but how confident are you that your L&D spend translates into actual business benefits?  It’s a critical question for HR, L&D, and talent professionals, since unfortunately the bulk of training expenditures do not transfer to the job. [1]

Poorly designed development provides little more than a Hawthorn effect: a warm glow which fades before participants have returned to their to-do-lists.  Covid 19 has forced a lot of organisations to look at talent investments plans and recognise that they shouldn’t just simply revert back to standard leadership interventions.

So why is so much learning and development ineffective? We looked at findings from 335 independent leadership development intervention studies, involving over 26,000 leaders (2) which have identified the need to respond to five key challenges:

Five key challenges which need to be overcome to make learning development more effective:

Conduct a solid needs analysis 

Programmes developed from a robust assessment of the change needed for that particular leader, in that particular business, result in greater learning and more significant changes in leadership behaviour on-the-job. However, one size does not fit all, so we should allow employees to personalise their work and their development and help them learn to know what works for them. We would also stress the importance of activating all parties involved in the L&D process so they are aware of the commitment (both psychological and practical) that needs to be made and the depth of reflection and discovery that they will need to embark on. There are no shortcuts for the commitment that individuals, line managers and senior stakeholders need to make to ensure that transfer of learning and development.

Ensure your organisational context is strongly reflected

Those of us working in leadership development will know all too well the frustrations of delivering programmes that generate a huge degree of motivation and capability for change (what we call mindset and skillset) only to find that leaders struggle to translate this into results when back in the day job. We would argue the last 18 months has clearly highlighted the need for a renewed focus on the organisational context. Transforming leadership behaviour requires a holistic focus on context, mindset AND skillset, yet less than 50% of the HR, Talent and Leadership Professionals we surveyed were managing to implement initiatives that influence the Context in which their people lead. We all need to work harder to ensure the organisational reality and strategic context is strongly reflected.

Use practice-based real-world application

We all seem to know this to be intuitively true and cite it when we build interventions to support talent development and putting into place L&D initiatives. However, this is the area where most L&D development falls over as we are not putting the right support  (time, money, accountability, focus) in to the assign element of learning and creating stretch experiences to provide the 70% element of learning in the 70-20-10 [3] rule we often talk about.  The good news is this is there is a lot of interesting research out there to unpick what the 70% is best made up of: research [4] indicates the most productive stretch experiences involve:

  • Difficult staffing situations
  • Financial management
  • Interpersonally challenging situations
  • Strategy development
  • High-risk situations
  • Critical responsibilities
  • External relations
  • Start up or new business area
  • Highly visible situations
  • Managing diversity 

These are not just tasks to be done but learning experiences. These could be things you do alongside your current role - they could be projects alongside current role; they could be short secondments; or they could be role changes. It doesn’t matter as long as they fit the individuals learning needs and the needs of the business.

Include feedback 

Feedback (i.e. through coaching) significantly increases the likelihood of seeing on-the-job behaviour change and can also accelerate the development process. This feedback should facilitate sense-making in the context of their organisation, career, and/or work tasks – not simply talking the leader through their personality profile.  It should also be regular and received soon after the experience it relates to – not just bi-annually in a performance review.

Deliver multiple elements over time

Interventions with multiple elements spaced out over time are more likely than ‘single-hit’ initiatives to translate into changes in leadership behaviour on-the-job, and ultimately, to impact on organisational results. Whilst one-off initiatives often impact on learning new knowledge and skills, without follow-up elements (e.g. follow-up coaching or action-learning sets), this learning often doesn’t transfer into practice and will soon be lost.

Rolling out traditional workshops and claiming they are innovative and up to date because they are on Teams or Zoom is the easy option. Leading is difficult and requires bravery and courage. As practitioners in the L&D space we need to show more bravery and courage to push for more focus on the 70% to ensure that we are building leadership interventions that shift behaviour and create lasting impact on individuals and organisations.

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  1. Grossman & Salas (2011), The transfer of training: what really matters, International Journal of Training & Development, 15, 103-120.
  2. Lacerenza et al. (2017). Leadership Training Design, Delivery, and Implementation: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology
  3. Lombardo & Eichinger (1996). The Career Architect Development Planner (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Lominger. p. iv
  4. McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison (1988). The lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books; McCauley et al. (1994). Assessing the developmental components of managerial jobs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 544–560.

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