In today’s business environment, companies face a hyper-competitive hunt for talent and seek effective ways to upskill their existing employees. Unfortunately, many companies underfund learning and development (L&D) because their senior leaders have not seen a significant improvement in managers’ behaviors and results afterward.

Ultimately, the improvements an employee makes from an L&D program need to translate to increased business results, leadership ability and a return on investment (ROI). Of course, ideally a successful L&D program should also be enjoyable for participants.

The L&D programs that show senior leaders a positive ROI incorporate seven key elements:

1. They embrace the principal leadership development truth: Knowledge doesn’t equal success. Often, there is a huge gulf between a manager knowing what great leaders do and having the ability to consistently demonstrate that conduct on the job. L&D programs that focus on behavioral change and complex skill adoption versus just transferring knowledge are the most successful at driving sustained results.

The more complex the leadership skill is, the more a person’s behavior, values, security, likes and dislikes affect how well they execute it. Often, a person’s top development challenge is to reign in a strength that has worked well for them previously but that they overuse to the point it becomes detrimental to their success as a leader. Good examples of this are a knowledgeable expert who would rather do the work than delegate, a top litigator who sees every interaction as a win-or-lose endeavor and a manager with so much empathy they cannot deliver constructive feedback. In each case, the people need to develop the awareness that the skill is a problem for them when taken to extremes and learn a process for managing their urge to do more of it.

2. They help participants gain rapid self-awareness and acceptance. Many successful employees don’t accept the need to change a behavior or improve a skill that they have grown accustomed to using. Instead, they prefer to stay in their comfort zone and deny there is a problem.

Strong L&D programs help employees create deep self-awareness of issues that are limiting their leadership success. They leverage assessments, observation and measurements to give an employee a thorough understanding of their conduct, likes and dislikes, default behaviors and behavior under stress. They also identify circumstances, mental states and people that trigger conduct that is less than excellent. Great leaders know their triggers. Great L&D programs help them learn what those are and how to handle them.

The best programs also help participants understand that people tend to lean into the job tasks and responsibilities they enjoy and avoid doing things they dislike. A few exceptional programs also help leaders understand their default behaviors, both good and bad. Default behaviors are those that people exhibit automatically as if they are in an autopilot mode. These behaviors are hard to break because they are deeply wired into peoples’ brains through constant repetition. A successful L&D program helps participants identify their default behaviors and provides proven techniques for managing them.

3. They provide ways to implement the desired change. Once an employee in a leadership development program shifts from denying a problem exists to being enthusiastic about making a change, considerable improvement will occur. Unfortunately, many employees struggle with accepting the accuracy of feedback and the need for change. It’s almost like they want to move through the stages of grief at their own pace. A successful L&D program should facilitate the process and create the motivation to persevere. Key elements should include techniques for leveraging peer pressure and time constraints to create a goal and a plan, along with a bit of competition.

4. They include expert coaching. Great coaching works and is indispensable in helping employees develop strong leadership skills. This tool is particularly helpful for people who are experts in fields such as IT, engineering, research and development and finance and who tend to trust other specialists that have “been there and done that.” An L&D program that drives demonstrable leadership results ideally gives participants the opportunity to work with former executives who are great coaches and mentors. Employees appreciate these proven leaders’ candid advice and insights and their ability to instill confidence.

5. They strive for instructional design excellence. L&D programs are only as good as the results they produce. The best ones are designed to blend real-world solutions with the best concepts from today’s human resources (HR) and executive thought leaders. They have well-constructed components to help participants describe desired new behaviors, learn how to acquire them and provide the necessary insights and experiences that foster lasting and significant change.

6. They drive stickiness. To drive lasting behavior change, great L&D programs incorporate the benefits of continued effort over time in their approach. Numerous studies have shown that giving people multiple opportunities to practice a new skill and keeping the issue front and center — combined with their sustained effort over time — produces more complex skill adoption and greater behavioral change benefits.

7. They incorporate the science behind leadership development. The L&D programs that produce results include techniques prescribed from the industry’s top thought leaders and neuroscientists. This information includes emotional intelligence and behavioral change techniques.

In Conclusion

When investing in an L&D program, be sure it includes these seven proven components. If it does, you will be able to demonstrate the strong results and lasting change senior leaders crave and that drive your organization’s success.