Has this happened to someone you know?

Tanya, a driven and talented professional, is known for her ability to get things done. She is a natural leader and often outperforms her goals for the year. Not surprisingly, she gets promoted to a management position and is now responsible for leading a team to take on a new important initiative for the organization. She takes on this position with gusto and is confident she will succeed, just as she has often done in the past. However, within the first three months, it is clear that she is in over her head. Her team begins to doubt her ability to lead, she starts to lose confidence in herself, and her manager grows frustrated at her lackluster performance. In just 90 days, Tanya has gone from a polished successful professional to a self-conscious and disengaged manager who no longer feels safe in the space where she used to thrive.

So, what happened here? Tanya did not suffer from a lack of skill; she had proven that from her past performance. She was not “green” to the world of business; she had a successful track record and was respected by peers and managers alike. Who is to blame in this situation and how could it have been avoided?

In the current competitive job market, professional development has become an important retention and recruiting strategy. Many organizations tout their leadership training programs as key benefits for employees. However, a variety of factors can prevent employees from engaging with training. What could be leading to this disconnect? While many individuals see the value of training and want to participate, our current productivity-fueled workplace doesn’t prioritize learning during the workday. Individuals make tough choices to balance the responsibilities of work and home — and training often falls off the list. In Tanya’s case, she chose to focus her time on proving her performance capability through work, rather than learning management skills that might serve her in the future.

Learning and development (L&D) is all too often seen as a cost center rather than an investment by organizational leadership. This low prioritization is reinforced by performance evaluations that focus on quantitative work measures and discount time spent learning new skills. Back to our Tanya story, how might the outcome have changed if she had seen a return on investment (ROI) (demonstrated through a high-performance appraisal) for spending 10% of her time in a leadership development program? Let’s take a look at what her company could have done to help prepare Tanya to take on a management role.

Prioritizing Learning

There are some common pitfalls within organizations that lead to a disparity in how training is prioritized. To begin with, L&D initiatives are often siloed and not integrated with the company’s strategic business objectives. For example, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training is quite popular now, in some cases it’s even required training by HR departments. However, there can be a disconnect between what the organization sees as a valuable investment and what learners see as beneficial to their careers. We have heard for years how diversity has a positive impact on the bottom line, but how many organizations are including a diversity goal in their business plan? When there is a lack of continuity between key training initiatives and stated business goals, no one is held accountable to ensure the program is a success.

Alignment between learning initiatives and business objectives is key, but so is alignment with the company culture and work environment. When trying to scale-up quickly, L&D departments often turn to content libraries to provide the content. While this approach works in some cases, it can backfire if the content being delivered is not reflective of the actual employee experience. If employees are going to make time to learn, they must be able to see how they can apply what they learn to achieve success.

The same holds true for managers. As leaders of their team, they need to be informed about specific and relevant training opportunities that are designed to help their team achieve their goals. If managers understand what’s in it for them, they will be more inclined to encourage and support their team members in getting trained.

In Tanya’s case, there were no stated learning requirements for the management role she was promoted to. She relied on the assumption that prior experience would be enough to help her take on a more demanding job and any gaps would be filled by learning while doing. What she failed to understand was that her new manager would not have time to help fill in those gaps, and instead expect her to quickly get up to speed. Tanya felt pressured to “fake it ‘til she made it.” She knew she was in over her head, but without a supportive and integrated learning culture, she didn’t know where to turn for help.

Integrating Learning into the Organization

Formal learning opportunities are just one part of the equation. A truly effective and integrated learning program includes structured activities to help learners apply their new knowledge to their job. A simple way to facilitate this is to include learning and development as an agenda item in every one-on-one meeting. This is a great opportunity for managers and team members to discuss how new skills can be applied to ongoing and future work. By carefully documenting these conversations, you can collect evidence on the ROI each training initiative is generating.

It is important for team leaders to work closely with L&D to identify the intended outcomes for each training. This will ensure that the organization is able to take full advantage of the time and money being invested in upskilling its workforce. In Tanya’s case, if she had been a part of an integrated leadership development program, she could have had opportunities to audit senior leadership meetings, lead special projects and even work with a senior-level mentor before she took on a management role. This would have helped her to make the transition smoother for herself and everyone else involved.

Some organizations are on the right path. They have done their due diligence to align training and business goals and they have gotten leadership on board to prioritize training as a key measure of success in their organization. However, they are still struggling to get their team members involved. In this instance, there may be a disconnect for the employees on how they will personally benefit from completing the training. Here are a few ideas to help show the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) to the employees.

    • Create a performance goal specifically for L&D. Allow the employee to indicate what they would like to learn more about and how they would like to engage. For example, if you have a team member who enjoys managing projects, perhaps they would benefit from pursuing their project management professional (PMP) certification. Discuss the timeline and include this certification as a performance goal for their end-of-year review. This will help keep the employee accountable and motivated to complete this learning experience. In addition to adding value to the team, the individual will also get a nice resume boost from the PMP designation.
    • Invite your team member to conduct a teach-back session. After a training event is over, give the team member 10-15 minutes at the next team meeting to present the key takeaways. Encourage them to select one topic from the training and teach it to the rest of the team. This is a great way to showcase the knowledge (and provide a confidence boost) of a team member and give others the opportunity to learn something new.
    • Create a learning path that leads to a promotion for a team member. As we saw with Tanya, preparing to take on a more senior role requires on-the-job experience as well as training on how to handle their new responsibilities. It can be helpful to create a stepping stones document that identifies specific projects as well as training opportunities that will help prepare the individual for their next role.
    • Consider a high-potential talent pool. Managers are invited to nominate team members to be included in the pool, and if accepted, these individuals have access to specialized leadership development opportunities. They will receive prioritized consideration for promotion and special high-profile projects. To be nominated, an individual must demonstrate high levels of engagement in the company, exemplify company values and be committed to team success.


Research shows that employees consider learning opportunities to be a key factor when considering whether to leave their current position. At the same time, U.S. companies have increased their L&D spending significantly. We have the right ingredients to take full advantage of L&D as a key business driver. We simply need to communicate a clear picture of how the employee and the organization will mutually benefit from their efforts. By working closely with leadership, we can support and encourage learning for employees at all levels, so that we prepare our talent today to serve as the leaders of tomorrow.