There are well-established practices for how to run leadership development programmes. One issue, however, is that leaders often attend a series of training courses but take little time to practically apply their new insights. People Management spoke to Nicolai Tillisch, regional partner at The Leadership Circle, about some of the pitfalls of leadership development programmes and how to get leaders to actively engage in their own development.

How much do organisations spend on leadership development?

Organisations in the GCC countries are making serious investments in leadership development. In 2015 alone, the spending seems to have surpassed AED2 billion. There were cost cuts across the line in 2016, with multinational corporations a partial exception, but the second quarter of this year picked up again.

Can leadership development courses be a little too general in terms of the competencies they try to develop?

Executives are busy and if they cannot apply something relatively quickly and experience early gains, it is unlikely to be their priority. Anybody can check Google to find how to give feedback or make a presentation but the best programmes expand people’s awareness of themselves as leaders and help them develop and run their businesses more effectively.

Do leaders find the time to apply their new skills? Or do they go back to their old style if they are not challenged enough?

A leadership programme only introduces its participants to a set of skills. Receiving a certificate at the end should be treated like getting a sign with a big ‘L’ to put in the back window of the car, as new drivers in many countries are expected to do.

Executives – and adults in general – underestimate what it takes to change. Those who want to significantly improve their effectiveness as leaders must practice frequently, get regular feedback and accept the discomfort of overruling old habits.

Corporate professionals feel they have too little time and don’t see the connection between innovation and continuous improvement. They must constantly improve their use of time to avoid running out of it. Leaders must master this, as they are not only responsible for their own time but also that of others.

Does the fault lie with leadership programmes not being properly measured for their effectiveness?

The acclaimed Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer completed a big review of publicly available statistics and research on leadership development. His concerning conclusion is that for a substantial share of organisations, the return on investment is low – in many cases even negative.

Many factors cause leadership programmes to have a weak impact, but it tends to go unnoticed because organisations struggle to analyse what happens afterwards.

There is a sarcastic saying in my native Denmark: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” A leadership programme is an expensive failure if the organisation does not get a lasting return on its investment. A considerable part of the loss is the participants’ wasted time and their lower appetite for developing themselves in the future.

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