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7 May, 2015

Why Does Leadership Training Fail?

Leadership training fails. And you probably already know this.

Let me explain…

Most of us have been to many training courses. For some of them your evaluation may have been, “Great lunch and good content.” Yet, four or five months later how much of what you learnt do you still apply? Some, but most likely, not a lot.

Training in isolation is ineffective

A well-quoted study by Neil Rackham, founder of US sales consulting, training and research company Huthwaite, evaluated the sales training at Xerox Corporation and made a stunning discovery. Rackman found that, on average, participants lost 87% of the new skills they learned within one month.

There were exceptions, however: some sales people showed a smaller loss and some showed an increase in skills. He discovered that those who lost the least and gained the most had managers who managed the application of the new skills and behaviours immediately after training. This research illustrates perfectly what happens when training is in isolation; regarded as an event that people attend without any effort to ensure on-the-job application of the new skills.

Why does this happen?

Ability x Motivation = Performance

Ability is all about the person — their natural talents, work experience, industry knowledge, task knowledge and skill. Motivation, on the other hand, refers to how willing they are to apply what they know and can do.

In a previous article I discussed discretionary effort. Motivation essentially relates to this — how willing people are to contribute over and above what is expected of them.

Performance is maximised when people are both able and willing (ability x motivation). This is true whether the person is a frontline team member, a first-line manager or a middle manager. Yet, training only deals with ability and fails to address willingness.

A four-level model to measure training

Donald Kirkpatrick, past President of the American Society for Training and Development, developed a four-level model for training evaluation.

  • Level 1 – Reaction – How the participant felt about the training or learning experience
  • Level 2 – Learning – The extent of learning in terms of increased knowledge and skill
  • Level 3 – Behaviour – The extent of behavioural change back on the job to apply the learning
  • Level 4 – Results – The effect on the business or organisation by the participant’s actions

Others later proposed a fifth level of evaluation – return on investment (ROI), which is the extent to which the benefits of training outweigh the costs.

Despite this model being well known in the training fraternity, the majority of trainers and training companies focus exclusively on level 1 and 2 evaluations, with seemingly little concern for ensuring that learning is applied back on the job.

Leadership is an observable and learnable set of practices

The really critical issues in leadership training occur after the event – the extent to which participants apply that learning back on the job, create performance improvements in their teams and return significant ROI to the organisation.

What is the key to success?

As a specialist in results-driven frontline leadership, I’m most interested in what works for first-line and middle managers, who I refer to as frontline leaders. Findings from the Work and Employment Research Centre at the University of Bath point to the importance of frontline leaders in driving organisational performance.

They discovered that the largest influence on the commitment of first-line managers was their relationship with their manager and the management team above them. So, the thing that dictates how well a first-line manager performs is how well they themselves are managed.

When leadership skills and practices learnt in leadership training are applied to the job, there are many positive related outcomes such as increased employee engagement, discretionary effort and productivity. The extent to which this occurs is dependent on the expectations, support, reinforcement and feedback provided by the frontline manager’s immediate manager.

Leadership development is more than great content

So, though leadership training may provide great content, by itself it isn’t enough to get a real return on investment.


To get our report “The Secret to Leadership Effectiveness”, which shows how YOU can help your organisation improve leadership quality, employee engagement, and financial success, click here.


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