3 Reasons Leadership Programs Fail

75% of organisations believe their leadership development programs are not effective. So where’s the gap?

A study from Brandon-Hall found that 75 percent of organisations believe their leadership development programs are not effective.  Let's take a look at why leadership programs fail and how you can avoid the same fate.

Leadership programs fail when there is a lack of learning transfer back on to the job.  For whatever reason, concepts don’t translate into application and behaviour doesn’t change. 

Or you might see some behavioural change, but it's short lived - after a month or so, things go back to the way they were - and you're back to square one (except with a slightly smaller training budget!).

Sound familiar?  If it does, it might be because of one of these 3 barriers that limit learning transfer and can derail your leadership program.

  1. Lack of personalisation - The program is one-size fits all
  2. Lack of contextualisation - It's hard for learners to link learning back to real world situations.
  3. Lack of measurement - People aren't held accountable so learning trails off.

1. Lack of personalisation

A lot of leadership programs employ a one-size fits all approach. A set of topics/learning modules is set, usually based on the organisation’s competency framework, and the expectation is that all learners complete all things.

The key issue with this approach is that it does not cater for individual development needs. Learners have different strengths and weaknesses and face different issues and challenges on the job.

For example, one learner might be an excellent communicator but have a significant skills gap when it comes to planning and prioritising. Another might be exceptional at managing tasks but severely lacking in people skills, which is creating issues with their team.

If we force all learners down the same learning pathway, we limit the amount of time they can focus on areas of need – and these are the areas where we really want to see behavioural change.


Leadership development programs should give learners a say in what they learn and when, ensuring that they are focussing on development activities that are a priority for them right now.

In our programs, we use skills and leadership assessments to determine areas of need – but allow learners to choose what they work on and when.

It gives you the best of both worlds in that you are addressing critical areas of need as well as allowing each learner to guide their own development journey.

Read more about the leadership assessment tools we use to help drive successful development programs 

2. Lack of contextualisation

There are two concepts in learning transfer – near transfer and far transfer – and they impact the chances of learning being transferred back on to the job.

The general idea is that the closer (or nearer) learning is aligned to application, the more likely it is to transfer on to the job.

Let's say we were learning how to have a difficult conversation.  It's better to learn how to do it using a specific conversation you need to have (e.g. I need to talk to Sarah about being late) rather than just learning the general principles. 

Using a contextually specific example means that learning is much closer to application and we increase the chances of learning transfer.

Over time we want people to learn how to apply their knowledge and skills in a range of different contexts rather than one specific scenario, but this takes time and lots of practice. Best to start with learning that is as near to application as possible.

The challenge with traditional classroom-based learning is that individualised, contextually specific learning content is just not practical – you just can’t contextualise a concept for each learner in a group learning environment.


At least part of the learning process needs to be one-to-one.

In our programs, we prefer to use one-to-one coaching as our primary development method. It allows concepts to be contextualised to very specific situations, limiting the gap between concept and application and increasing the chances of successful learning transfer.

We still use workshops to supplement the coaching (group learning does have its benefits) but on-the-job application is driven through one-to-one coaching.

3. Lack of measurement

In a perfect world, people would hold themselves accountable for their behaviour, engage in self-reflection and actively engage in continuous learning and improvement.

I’ll leave you to think about how many people you know who actually do that…but I bet the figure is a lonely single digit.

To ensure consistent application back on the job, you need a robust measurement system that:

  • Provides visibility over the learning process
  • Provides a feedback loop for learners.


Visibility drives accountability - as they say “what gets measured, gets made”. 

The problem with a lot of traditional classroom-based development programs is that visibility ends once people leave the room.

Learners might be asked to jot a few actions down on a piece of paper, but that’s about as far as it goes - leaving a giant black hole when it comes to application.

After the initial “I’m going to do things differently from now on” enthusiasm wains, application of learning inevitably drops off and things just return to how they were.


  1. Learners need development goals.
  2. Goals need to be visible to the learner and their manager(s) so they feel a sense of accountability for achieving those goals and can be held accountable if they don’t.
  3. Progress against goals needs to be tracked.

The setting and tracking of development goals is the bare minimum you should expect from any learning provider. The work doesn’t end once a training day is delivered – the work is just getting started!

Feedback loop

Learning takes practice and continued application. We try, we fail, we reflect and do things better next time. But how do learners know what they are doing well and what they need to do better without feedback?

Now before you say “their manager should be giving them feedback.” Absolutely agree. This should be the case. But how many managers do you work with that actually do it?

If managers consistently gave timely, specific and actionable feedback – we wouldn’t have a job!


Collect structured feedback from the people around the learner (i.e. their team members and manager) throughout the program as they are applying things on the job. It is essential for reflection and continuous learning.