Estimates of the amount of money organizations spend on leadership development in a given year range from $3.4 billion to $14 billion.

Companies spend an awful lot on training. Why don’t they always get their money’s worth?

Yet, at least half of executives say they fail to achieve the goals for which they were hired within 18 months of taking their position. Are companies promoting a bunch of talentless people? Not likely. What is likely is that leadership development programs aren’t adequately preparing emerging leaders for their work.

Training programs, of course, differ significantly. Leadership development may involve traditional classroom training, immersive courses, or even self-paced online learning. Each of these modalities has advantages and disadvantages, and none can be discounted as irrelevant or ineffective.

The key to making leadership development programs more effective is coaching. I can spend all day teaching you about how to play baseball, but that doesn’t mean that you know how to swing a bat. Coaching is about taking skills from concept to execution.

The Importance of Applying and Sustaining Knowledge

Have you ever heard about the “forgetting curve?” It was first developed by a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus, who helped quantify that within a couple of days of learning a concept, we forget most of it. More alarmingly, most of that forgetting happens within the first hour after learning.

Fortunately, this forgetting curve can be rerouted, through learning methods like a frequent and periodic review of concepts. Another way to prevent learning drop-off is by putting concepts to use as soon as possible after learning them. If I show you how to separate egg yolks from egg whites in a cooking class, for example, you’ll retain the concept better if I hand you some eggs to practice with.

Coaching is the Key

Coaching effectively bridges concept with action. In many companies, leadership coaching is reserved for top executives, because it represents a large investment of time and resources. But one-on-one leadership coaching isn’t the only type of coaching available.

One-on-one coaching is the gold standard. But other types of coaching exist.

Team coaching exists, and some companies train their own team coaches to supplement training programs. Many of us have experienced team coaching from playing sports. Maybe our coach wasn’t focusing solely on a single person, but if they were skilled, they could manage to help each team member in some way during a team practice session. Team coaches in business have similar skills.

Technology Can Help

One of the great convergences between learning theory and technology has been the development of technological tools that can reinforce skills learned during training programs. Suppose for the sake of argument that a leadership development program tries to instill in participants the importance of checking in daily with key team members to keep projects on track. Adjunct tools, in the form of mobile apps that remind participants that they need to perform their check-in can help ingrain this habit.

In fact, as we learn skills, we can develop our own self-coaching strategies that reinforce learning. Maybe we discover that writing a quick summary of the day’s activities at the end of each day boosts our own productivity. A simple alarm on our phone can remind us when it’s time to do this. Eventually, it becomes enough of a habit that we don’t need the alarm.

That’s an overly simplified version of “coaching,” but it demonstrates the need to repeatedly apply what we learn in order to benefit the most from it.

Leadership development programs generally don’t fall short because of inadequate or irrelevant content. Nor do they fall short because of ineffective teaching methods. Frequently, the fault lies in follow-through. In order to lay down new neural pathways, we have to practice what we learn. Leadership coaching is all about applying skills so that our strengths get stronger while we address weaknesses.

It is safe to say that when companies include the “missing” element of coaching in their leadership development programs, they will get significantly better results. Whether that happens through technology, team coaching, or individual coaching will depend heavily on the resources available. But the bottom line is that simply teaching skills is inadequate. It is in the doing that we really raise our performance level.


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