Inculcating continuous learning

RECENT research on company training programmes has shown that most of them don’t work and are a waste of time.

People Management Issues,Robert Mandeya

Unless most companies learn how to create a culture of continuous learning for training and development, all efforts at training would come to naught.

I have often discouraged most of the organisations I deal with against prescribing one-day training workshops. A lot of these organisations are of the opinion that training exercises are a waste of time. This assertion may be true given the way these training programmes are carried out and packaged in most of these organisations. Honestly, how does spending hours cooped up in a contained learning environment actually end up producing more effective leaders? It’s a question worth exploring.

Many companies spend time and resources annually on leadership development training. There are thousands and thousands of books on leadership training targeted at any function or level, and executive programmes at the world’s most esteemed universities. In other words, there’s a lot of energy and resources being spent on these programmes.

While this is a good thing, there has not been any assessment after these costly exercises to ascertain the level of impact or indication of any meaningful behavioural change in the participants.

How can the new behaviour acquired in training be sustained? Studies have found that adult learners in a lecture setting forget nearly 50% of what they learn within two weeks. More so, research has also found out that the most highly trained leaders — CEOs — are often not able to translate their knowledge into experience. An American think tank, Centre for Creative Leadership, found that 38% of new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job.

So given the foregoing, what factors make for a rich, enduring leadership development programme? What factors actually create better leaders? What makes the investment in leadership training worth it?

Context

We know from research that content that’s relevant to one’s own experience and builds upon prior knowledge is most likely to be retained. Leadership programmes must integrate with the larger scope of the organisation. Bringing in someone to deliver the standard pump-up-the-troops programme may be briefly engaging, but not produce any behavioural change. Before spending a dime on training, it’s important to clarify: what is the purpose and goal?

It’s far more effective to focus on specific leadership skills that are pertinent to the vision and growth of the company and make sure the design is carefully tailored to them.

In an article titled Why Leadership Development Programmes Fail, by McKinsey & Company, the authors discuss the problems — and solution — to these general approaches to leadership development and have this to say: “What we often find is a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies and corporate-values statements. Each is usually summarised in a seemingly easy-to-remember way (such as the three Rs), and each on its own terms makes sense.

“In practice, however, what managers and employees often see is an ‘alphabet soup’ of recommendations. We have found that when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in its business—such as high-quality decision making or stronger coaching skills—it achieves far better outcomes.”

I cannot agree more with this observation by the two authors. I have often encountered the challenge where an organisation would just invite me to design a leadership training programme not directed at any specific leadership issue.

Continual motion

A training programme should be viewed as the beginning of the leadership development process, not the end. It’s critical that after the programme is complete, there’s a sustained effort to maintain momentum and individualise learning. There are many ways to accomplish this. Some companies include personal executive coaching. Others establish a learning cohort that meets regularly and discusses concepts. It can also be valuable to conduct shorter trainings over a longer period of time, that is four one-day sessions rather than one four-day session. By stretching the learning out, you avoid overload and allow the concepts to be gradually advanced in a real-world context.

I have applied this method with some organisations and individuals and it has worked wonders. I normally refer to it as micro learning and it is all about creating “bite-sized” content for employees to learn from. It’s much more in tune with the way people live now — quick, short, personalised. Some people learn faster than others, some people prefer videos to text, so it’s important to adjust accordingly. Micro-learning is a completely different way of thinking about training and development.

Measurement

This is one of the hardest ones — how do you actually measure something like leadership? Many well-meaning measurement protocols end up backfiring. Consider the number of participants promoted, which is often a measurement of programme success. If the company has a few bad quarters and cuts back, then that metric becomes meaningless.
Most companies use evaluations sheets: those ubiquitous ratings of 1-5 on score sheets you fill out at the end of a programme. They measure how much participants enjoyed the programme, and enjoyment, while a consideration, is not a meaningful goal. Companies need to carefully consider what measurement should be well ahead of time. Are people getting promoted faster? Are managers seeing an improvement on performance reviews? Is the pool of succession candidates getting deeper? It often takes a year or more to see this fleshed out so patience and clarity are both key.

Courageous content

Peter Bregman, a business advisor and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, argues that leadership development programs strive too earnestly to create safe environments for learning. But the best learning often comes in times of risk and struggle.

Programme rationale

Finally, we also have to be courageous about the reason for the leadership programme in the first place. If there’s a serious deficit that needs to be addressed, it’s better to be honest about it.

I would end by saying the world is moving fast and so should organisational leaders. Failure to cope would lead to stagnation and irrelevance in the global arena of business.

Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development with the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. — mandeyarobert@yahoo.com or mandeyarobert@gmail.com.