Leadership training gone wrong (and how to fix it)

Recently, I spent 3 hours of my life sitting in a leadership “workshop”. I use quotes, because it was more like a speech with limited table activities (big room, lots of people, blah blah blah). While the speaker did a good job, the content was nothing anyone hasn’t seen before – a couple of nice concepts sprinkled on a sundae of been there, done that. Ironically, I attended this on the same day my husband (who is more receptive to training than most because of what I do for a living) attended a mandatory training that was less than life-changing.

The confluence of these two sessions got me thinking about the state of leadership development out there. There is a LOT of crap that people are paying good money for that ends up being repackaged versions of successful books from the past. (The session I mentioned earlier wasn’t that bad…but it set off this train of thought…that, and this blog post by Laurie Ruettimann – if you’re not following her, you should be.) The laziness out there really chaps my hide because it perpetuates the myth that leadership training sucks. As a person with a pretty strong background in that arena (leadership dev, not sucking…I think), and as someone who has had to preview way too many awful training programs, I take it personally when someone knowingly puts out mediocre work.

20130424-204818.jpgThe reality is, there are some truly amazing and effective programs out there, and some equally amazing organizations who can help you meet your development goals. The Center for Creative Leadership, Franklin Covey’s Speed of Trust, Crucial Conversations, Disney Institute, Situational Leadership…lots of great stuff. Sadly, few leaders (or L&D groups, apparently) know how to pick a good program. They sign up for whatever sounds good and hope for the best.  And even more depressing is that there are a lot of training professionals trying to pass off sub-standard content as “groundbreaking”.

So in an effort to keep the development pool undiluted by “meh”, and to provide some guidance to those of you looking for a session/workshop/vendor/etc., I submit the following ways to make leadership training more meaningful:

  • Get on with it: I know context is important. But do we really need 45 minutes rehashing what “leadership” is? There’s a good chance everyone who has sought out leadership development already has their own ideas of what leadership is, so take a few minutes to get everyone on the same page as to how you’ll be referring to leadership in the session…AND MOVE ON.
  • What are the objectives? If the session description can’t articulate the expected learning outcomes, you’re in trouble. And if you as a learner can’t articulate your expected learning outcomes, you’re in trouble. And this might just be my soapbox, but don’t trust an objective that uses “understand”. Can you measure “understanding”? Yes? Then say how, and use THAT word instead. Which leads into my next point…
  • Awareness is not actionable: Let me be clear – awareness is a vital component to development and change; however, it is not in and of itself a solution. What are you going to DO with that awareness? Too many trainings spend the bulk of the time on making you aware of stuff, but then gloss over HOW to affect real change. People probably know they need to talk to their team better. So how do they do it? Share some concrete steps, not just high level concepts and pretty pictures.
  • Make sure the learner is a willing participant: Nothing makes me sadder (in a training context) than hastily developed generic mandatory leadership training. It’s out there. I’ve even implemented some (don’t judge me too harshly). Look, I get that this one is tough.  It’s kind of a “lesser of two evils” decision sometimes. So if you have to mandate training to ensure evil managers let their people attend training, mix it up a bit. Do what you can to let the learner pick the topic/session relevant to them. Structure the content in a way that allows the learner to co-create the experience. Be a good enough facilitator to be able to adjust the material to the needs of the audience.
  • Results matter, not your words: This is for the instructional designers out there. As long as the learning objectives are met, does it really matter that the facilitator didn’t say every word you wrote? A good facilitator knows how to get the most put of your material – let them. Work with them to explain your choices, outline non-negotiables, and then let it go. The learners will appreciate it, and you won’t go crazy trying to reign in those diva trainers. 😉 (I say that with great respect – I have had the privilege of working with some amazing facilitators. I’m talking to you, Jim Unger!)
  • DO SOMETHING: Development without supported practice or real world application isn’t development. It’s lip service. Nuff said.

We who believe in the power of leadership development need to hold our fellow practitioners accountable. And we who want our leadership development to make a difference should demand better.

I could go on and on and on (and some of you would say I already have!). As you may have surmised, I’ve got some opinions on this topic and could probably fill a book with them.   But I want to hear from you – what do YOU think leadership development should include? Do you have a horror story we could all learn from? Share in the comments below or send me a note!

Almost anything can become a learning experience if there is enough caring involved.
– Mary MacCracken

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