Will Your Leadership Improvements Stick?
05.11.17   By Norm Smallwood
Debate rages about how much of what is taught in leadership courses actually transfers to leadership practice. Some have suggested that knowledge transfer is as low as 10%. Other studies show the number closer to 60%. We estimate that 20% to 30% of ideas learned in leadership training turn into practice. Whichever of these statistics you believe, it is clear that the investment in leadership training (as well as coaching, performance management, and individual development plans as well) is not having the impact it could, or should. And the failure comes with a significant cost: An estimated $60 to $80 billion is spent annually on training in the United States alone.

So, how do leaders sustain their desired improvements? Most if not all the leaders we work with know the importance of leadership for their organization’s success. Most also want to be better leaders, and this leads them to adopt personal improvement goals, to participate in training and development activities, and to invest in leadership of others in their organization. In leadership workshops or coaching, we often start with three questions:

1. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is leadership either for your personal or organizational success? Most answer 8, 9, or 10.

2. What specific things do you need to do to be a more effective leader? Most can quickly write down two or three desired behaviors.

3. How long have you known you should improve these behaviors? Most meekly acknowledge that they have known what to improve for three, six, twelve months — or longer (decades for some).

These improvements may come from a stronger desire to lead better or from being able to upgrade the right skills. Unfortunately, none of the initiatives to improve leadership (training, performance management, coaching) sufficiently transfer to practice. Well-meaning leadership training, individual development plans, coaching, or 360-degree sessions tend to be energizing events, but the energy dissipates quickly. Today’s biggest unmet challenge of leadership is not learning more about what to do, it is learning how to make sure that what is known is done.

To meet this challenge we began by gleaning lessons from a number of diverse fields that surround the concept clutter about this topic. We organize our findings into seven disciplines that spell the mnemonic START ME:
  • Simplicity
  • Time
  • Accountability
  • Resources
  • Tracking
  • Melioration
  • Emotion
We think this is apt because for each of us, sustainability starts with me. These seven disciplines turn hope into reality. Leaders who apply these seven disciplines go beyond the why and what of leadership to reach the how.

We are sure we have not captured everything that will increase leadership sustainability, but these seven disciplines inform both personal efforts to be a better leader and organizational investments in building better leadership. When leaders make commitments to change something in training, coaching, or performance management, the impact increases when participants attend to these seven disciplines as they anticipate how to turn learning into action.

We have spent decades helping leaders around the world make true change in their organizations and our ART of Leadership program was created for this very purpose. It's a program designed for high-potential leaders. Learn more about the program and how it can benefit your organization by clicking here.