No one can argue that a great leader can inspire and motivate a team to perform dramatically more than a horrible leader. But practical leadership training is not about transforming the “horrible” into the “great.” It’s about making the everyday leader just a little bit better and, through these incremental improvements, increasing the impact and business results of their teams.

While improving leadership capabilities through training would be challenging under normal conditions, trying to promote these positive behaviors amid a global pandemic is especially ambitious. But with greater risk comes greater reward. At a time of business uncertainty, when so many things seem unpredictable, it’s important to send a message to your employees that their development is still a high priority. In this way, learning and development (L&D) can have not only the intended effect on performance but an even more positive and long-term effect on employees’ engagement and organizational commitment. Training at this time can be an incredible investment for any company.

In early 2020, the leadership development team at Delta Dental of California and affiliated companies deployed a leadership training program designed to improve key leadership skills around connection, direction and support. They expected these improvements to generate higher motivation and performance from teams. A critical part of promoting these leadership behaviors was the direct involvement and support of the participants’ leaders.

What We Measured

Through a sample of 114 participants and their immediate direct reports, L&D leaders wanted to understand how applying the approach, principles and techniques could drive leader behaviors that promote higher performance. Their six-level measurement strategy was designed to answer six simple questions:

    1. Were employees engaged with the training experience?
    2. Did employees gain new and valuable insights into how they can be better, more influential leaders?
    3. Did employees apply those insights and improve critical leader behaviors on the job two to three months after the training?
    4. Did these leaders affect their team’s business performance? What were the benefits?
    5. Did the overall benefits outweigh the costs of training?
    6. How did the participants’ manager involvement affect the overall impact and return on investment (ROI) of the training?

The table below summarizes this six-level approach and methodology:

Level Measures … Measured by …
1 Satisfaction: Did they like it? Survey to participants immediately after training
2 Learning: Did they learn anything? Level 2 questions added to level 1 post-training survey
3 On-the-job improvements: Did they do something differently, better or more frequently? Multi-rater survey to participants and direct reports to measure key behavioral improvements three months after training
4 Business impact: Did it impact business performance? Performance data collected after training and isolated for training impact using participant estimates
5 ROI: Was it worth it? Monetized level 4 benefit per participant compared to cost per participant
6 Transfer climate: What factors maximize the impact of training? Analysis of how on-the-job climate factors like direct manager support influenced level 3, 4 and 5 results

Because the training was delivered during a pandemic, Delta Dental also wanted to see if organizational commitment (intent to stay with the company) would be impacted significantly more than a benchmark of pre-pandemic programs.

The results were as follows:

    • Ninety-three percent of participants were engaged with the training experience, and 97% would recommend it.
    • Ninety-eight percent of participants gained new and valuable insights into how to be a better leader.
    • Eighty-five percent applied the behaviors and techniques back on the job, and 76% (corroborated by direct reports) made clear improvements in their leadership by three months after the training.
    • These leaders increased their team’s performance by an average of 11% as a direct result of training.
    • These increases in performance meant an estimated ROI of 156% per participant three months after training.
    • Participants whose managers were more supportive of their learning had more than double the amount of business impact than participants with less supportive managers.
    • Eighty-four percent of participants’ direct reports said they were more committed to stay in their role at Delta Dental of California because of their leader’s improvements.

So, Was It Worth It?

The impact and results of this leadership training clearly point to a positive ROI, but the overall benefits extend far beyond this program. Putting this much rigor around measurement has enabled the leadership development team at Delta Dental of California to send some clear and positive messages to the rest of their organization:

Business Partners

It sends the L&D leaders’ business partners a message that their support matters. The data they collected gave them the evidence to go back to their clients within the businesses and say, “When we deliver training, it’s not just about the content and delivery; it’s also about the environment our participants return to after the training.”

For instance, are learners’ managers giving them the support and encouragement they need to apply what they learned? These on-the-job climate factors can be such a strong predictor of training impact that, in some cases, they can even make or break the return on investment. Identifying and improving these factors on the job will improve training impact the next time.

Stakeholders and Leaders

A rigorous measurement strategy also sends L&D leaders’ stakeholders and the leaders of the company a message that they are so serious about the impact of their programs that they are willing to measure them. Without a solid measurement strategy, some leadership teams view L&D teams as budget-takers, not budget-makers: They continue to churn out new training every year but never prove the value it brings to the business bottom line.

This perception that L&D always brings a cost but never a real benefit can hurt its reputation. When we put our money where our mouth is and offer to measure the impact of training, it speaks volumes about the seriousness of our intent to bring value to the business.


Finally, this measurement strategy sends employees a message that they are the organization’s highest priority. Over the last year, everyone on the planet felt a new anxiety and uncertainty about the future of his or her work and career. Some organizations had to make cuts, some decided to close their training departments, and some went in the opposite direction and invested in their people’s development.

By launching a leadership development program during this turbulent time, Delta Dental not only made its employees feel more secure, but it also sent a clear message of dedication and commitment to their professional development. Because of this increased sense of commitment, they may reduce turnover in the future. As my dentist always reminds me about my teeth, “A little extra care now means you won’t have to replace them later.”

Want to learn more on this topic? Sign up for the virtual Training Industry Conference & Expo, and watch Paul’s live session.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 12, 2021, to reflect corrections to one data point and branding.