Leadership development has taken on renewed importance for many organizations. After years of minimal investment, organizations are now faced with the looming retirement of baby boomer managers. According to research by Wilson Learning, nearly 60 percent of organizations say they lack sufficient bench strength to fill those spots, and only 40 percent say they have sufficient resources to fill their existing gaps in leadership.

Effective leadership skills can increase organizational performance – but only if the new leadership skills are put into practice. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to leadership development have a poor track record when it comes to transferring new skills to the job. As Robert Brinkerhoff wrote in his book “Telling Training’s Story,” numerous studies have shown that less than 30 percent of leadership skills are still in use six to 12 months after training.

So, how do we improve leadership development? The key is training that focuses less on teaching skills and more on supporting the use of those skills in the workplace. Over 30 years of experience has led us to five critical elements to help ensure that learners use and apply leadership development, resulting in a much greater return on investment.

1. Think Networks, Not Hierarchy.

Organizations used to be defined by rigid hierarchies, but most organizations today perform more like complex networks. Unfortunately, we still tend to define leadership development as hierarchies, cascading from curricula to programs to events to learning activities.

We need to move away from this linear design of learning to one with multiple paths that can create change, tailored to the individual needs of the learner. Such networks make use of multiple learning methods – structured and unstructured, facilitated and self-directed, and formal and less formal.

This approach also means that learning does not focus on just the learner. The learner’s manager, peers, colleagues, coaches, senior executives and others form a network of people who create an environment to support, engage and commit to behavior change.

2. Flip the Learning.

In traditional learning programs, managers learn leadership skills and then are sent back to their work environment to practice. This approach is ineffective and results in less learning transfer. In flipped learning, managers learn the skills within the work environment (for example, through e-learning or videos). Then, they go to a collaborative learning environment (a classroom or virtual classroom), where they practice, role-play, and discuss their successes and failures, all under the watch of their peers and a trained coach.

For most leadership development, learning the skills is the easy part; the behaviors and real-time decisions are more difficult. Flipping how practice is implemented ensures the hardest part of learning leadership skills (using them) is carried out in the most supportive environment and with guidance from trained facilitators.

3. Drip the Learning.

For many, leadership development is like drinking from a fire hose. In a one-week “boot camp,” we throw at learners everything they should know about leading people, and we expect them to learn and remember it all. It is no wonder that 70 to 80 percent of what leaders learn in training is forgotten in less than 12 months, according to Brinkerhoff.

“Drip irrigation” is a better metaphor than the fire hose. This approach means delivering learning continuously and slowly, allowing it to seep into the “roots” of the managers’ behavior so they not only remember it but also incorporate it, changing their behavior more permanently.

Flip and drip work in tandem. By focusing on one skill at a time (drip) and addressing not only knowledge but also use (flip), you can create a learning environment that increases the amount of learning that managers sustain.

4. Engage the Manager’s Manager.

People often say that nothing changes until the manager’s behavior changes. I say that nothing changes until the manager’s manager’s behavior changes. Regardless of the level, from supervisor to the C-suite, the quickest way to prevent leadership development from having an impact is to ignore the role of the manager’s manager.

Engaging the manager’s manager occurs before, during and after the training:

  • Gaining their agreement that the business challenges and leadership skills being addressed are the right ones
  • Gaining their commitment to support the leadership development program
  • Making sure they know the skills well and have the ability to coach to those skills
  • Providing a way to track skill performance so they can anticipate problems

The manager’s manager can be an effective mentor and coach – or the biggest barrier and saboteur to his or her development.

5. Pay Attention to the Return.

Throughout history, we see the story of the hero’s journey – a person moved to action, who accomplishes a great feat and then returns home. Your leadership development participants are also on a journey and, like the hero’s journey, the most difficult part is the return home. When learning heroes return from training to work, the changes they experience are often ignored. Their new skills are not recognized or valued, and they don’t have the tools to support their use.

Failing to address the return has a significant impact on learning transfer. Learning professionals need to support participants’ return to work by providing them with tools, reviews and reminders, and just-in-time support and by preparing others to play their part in ensuring the transfer of learning.

Creating Learning that Goes to Work

It is not important how much leaders learn but how much leaders use. Acting on these five questions will ensure that leaders learn and use the critical skills your organization needs to thrive:

  • Are you treating your learning like a network?
  • Are you flipping the learning experience and providing support for application?
  • Are you dripping learning to your leaders to maximize retention?
  • Are you engaging the manager’s manager to support and champion the new skills?
  • Are you supporting their return with tools, resources and reviews?