How to Get the Most out of Leadership Training

Topic(s): leadership, training
Publication: Harvard Business Review (2016)
Article: Why Leadership Training Fails and What to Do About It
Authors: M. Beer, M. Finnstrom, D. Schrader
Reviewed by: Susan Rosengarten

There are quite a few skeptics within the HR community who view learning and development programs or leadership training as costly and non-essential business expenditures, especially when budgets are tight. In truth, it can be hard to change go-to reactions or ingrained communication styles during a three hour seminar, or even a week-long retreat. Long-term and sustained learning and behavior change takes time and practice, and can be hard to quantify and tie back to business unit performance. However, a new article in Harvard Business Review (Beer, Finnstrom, & Schrader, 2016) makes the case that leadership training can provide a strategic competitive advantage when it is carried out in the right context, and with the right infrastructure in place.


According to the authors, when an organization fails to execute on its intended strategy and to change internal behavior, it can often be the result of misaligned company policies and practices, and not just the result of individual deficiencies of employees. Employees can only stretch themselves and grow to the extent that the systems in place around them support this progress. Organizational design and managerial processes play key roles in determining the success of organizational and individual change initiatives.

The authors offer the following six common barriers to leadership training impact which may be hindering the effectiveness of a company’s learning initiatives:

  1. Unclear direction on strategy and values.
  2. Inability of senior executives to function as a cohesive team.
  3. Top-down or laissez-faire leadership approach.
  4. Lack of coordination across the business, functions, or regions.
  5. Insufficient time and attention dedicated to talent issues.
  6. Employee fear and lack of organizational transparency.

What can you do to encourage a learning mindset, and ensure your organization’s training initiatives are set for success? How can you develop leaders to be the very best they can be?


First, start by approaching problems from the bottom up. Leaders may understandably lack the objectivity needed to address flaws in their own logic, or in processes that they have designed. Encourage employees at all levels of the organization to speak up, and use their feedback to further refine your strategies and improve operations.

Also, put systems in place to sustain learning efforts, and create conditions that encourage people to apply what you intend to teach them. Consider options and alternatives to reward target behaviors, and discourage undesirable actions. Make sure your employees and your business are fully ready for training before you roll it out, and approach the topic of individual development only after you have aligned your business strategy with your people strategy and financial priorities.


Learning programs should be as much about teaching employees technical substance and content as they are about teaching them how to learn. HR policies, social politics and employee backgrounds and experiences are just a few of the elements that contribute to a firm’s culture and influence employee behavior and decision-making. For training to truly achieve its intended outcome, the lessons learned need to be repeated and applied regularly on-the-job and over the long term.

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Beer, M., Finnstrom, M. & Schrader, D. (2016). Why Leadership Training Fails and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review, 94, 50-57.