How to triple the ROI from your leadership programs

To achieve returns on investment from L&D strategies, programs need to focus on Return on Learning - before thought goes into workshop content and beautifully created workplaces. Leadership programs can deliver up to 3x greater ROI if effort centres on how new skills and behaviours are applied in the real world work environment. Overcome the 5 Killers of Return on Learning.

By Alistair Gordon, Principal Consultant, HFL Leadership
Irrespective of how well presented a leadership workshop may be delivered, what is the point if it has no lasting impact? We’ve identified five issues that kill any hope of your organisation securing a return on the investment in time and money – let alone the capital wasted as managers and participants are discouraged by the lack of change from a faintly remembered development plan that has never been acted upon.
It’s time to stop repeating the same mistakes the leadership development industry has been making for 25 years. It’s time to take stock and re-imagine what a high performance leadership development program looks like.
Start with the 70
L&D professionals like to tout the 70-20-10 Rule of Learning, where 70 per cent of learning in on the job. But the truth is, L&D is great at the 10 (formal learning such as workshops), poor at the 20 (coaching/mentoring support), and relies unjustifiably on poorly equipped, under pressure managers to deliver the 70.
Back at the workplace, the lack of deployment by participants of newly learned leadership behaviours has little to do with their commitment and much more to do with the virtually non-existent support mechanisms.
If L&D designs focus on the 70 per cent on-the-job application of new skills and behaviours, and how these are actually going to be delivered in the workplace, then leadership programs have the capacity to generate up to three times greater ROI. HFL has been collecting the data, over numerous years and from hundreds of participants, to prove it.
But first, there are the 5 Killers of Return on Learning to overcome.
Over 90 per cent of the leaders HFL works with for the first time have no idea how to fashion a meaningful personal development plan. This is true even in the organisations that have HR teams who have worked very hard to produce excellent documentation and processes to assist middle and senior managers.
Solution: To help participants fulfil their personal development, the plans need to clearly articulate why a leader needs to make a behavioural change, and how good it is going to be - for themselves, their team and the organisation - when they have achieved this change.
Participants can only believe in their plan, and be totally committed to the achievement of its goals, if the program design ensures those commitments are directly aligned with their personal aspirations.
Few leadership development program participants have the luxury of spare time. So, whatever they decide to do more of - such as new leadership behaviours - has to occur at the expense of something they’re currently doing. Participants are challenged by an array of beliefs and environmental factors:
• Workload that has built up while they were away at the workshop
• Additional demands from their managers
• Commitments made at the workshop that were impractical and didn’t align with work they were already doing
• The inability to prioritise and delegate
Solution: Time isn’t really a barrier – but participants think it is. A well designed program ensures that participants develop concrete actions and time management skills to equip them to successfully achieve them.
The most toxic element is often the participant’s manager, who can negatively impact return on investment in the following ways:
• Moan incessantly about how sending the participant on a training program caused extra work for everyone else on the team
• Dismiss the ideas and enthusiasm of the returning participant - either deliberately or, as is more often the case, unwittingly
• Push back on changes that the participant wants to make, becoming a barrier to change; this is particularly true when it comes to delegation
• Challenging the systems and models discussed on the program - often because they haven’t personally been on the program and are either ill-informed or threatened
• Demotivating the participant by modeling behaviours that are contrary to those discussed as best practice on the workshop
The very common manifestation of such poor behaviours isn’t the fault of the managers – it is the fault of a program design that hasn’t created a supportive environment for participants to return to.
Poorly briefed and chosen mentors can have a similarly toxic impact.
Solution: To effect behavioural change in your leaders and deliver high organisational performance, the program design must achieve a great deal more than simply changing the view of the participant. It may have to include changes to the environment in which the participant operates.
Our research shows that many participants become discouraged - despite desperately wanting to stay the course and make the leadership behaviour changes they committed to. We all know how difficult it is to start doing things differently in life.
Left alone, many participants believe that they are the only one falling behind in the execution of these commitments. Isolation leads to desolation.
Solution: Participants need the active and available support of co-participants and course facilitators, month by month after the program.
We know any changes to teams or responsibilities that occur after attending a workshop may derail the individual development plan. Once again, re-planning is not something that is easy for a leader to do in isolation.
Nearly all clients we work with are undergoing significant change programs. Participants returning from a leadership workshop, with yet another raft of changes that need to be implemented, are met with a team that is already exhibiting change fatigue, and all the resistant behaviours that go with this condition.
Solution: A highly effective program will take into account that change is the new normal. It will ensure that participants are primed to deal with potentially derailing change and have support mechanisms to turn to if they are struggling to adjust.
Why external audits matter
For very good reasons, external auditors are asked to review the work of internal accountants. It is also wise to use outside resources to carry out a meaningful and objective review of whether or not the investment made in leadership development programs is returning the value it should.
More than anything else, it is very difficult to critique your own work. This is why peer review is essential in many knowledge environments.
As a developer of leadership programs, HFL reviews and changes its designs every year. We have found so many ways to improve as we identify industry best practice and, more importantly, listen to the participants.
To triple the ROI from your leadership program requires proactivity and the thorough auditing of current practices.

Want to conduct an audit of your programs, and find that missing return on investment? HFL will undertake a one day audit completely free of charge and obligation. Email for more information.

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