Refocusing The Leadership Development Conversation

Refocusing The Leadership Development Conversation
October 3, 2016 JemmaTaylor-Smith

Pick up any professional journal and you’ll see that the subject of human capital metrics is on the organisational agenda. With leadership development programmes competing with other organisational projects for financial resources, a natural consequence is the need to demonstrate the return on investment from such talent development.

Transfer of learningIt would be naïve to suggest that this isn’t important but, given the numerous challenges such calculations present, are we in danger of putting our efforts in the wrong place? Shouldn’t we have an equal focus on improving the rate of return as well as just calculating it? If the most popular article downloaded from McKinsey Quarterly in 2014 – ‘Why leadership development programmes fail’¹ – can be taken as an indicator of current interest, then improving leadership learning transfer can be regarded as an area of common concern and opportunity.

We may begin to improve the rate of return on leadership learning if we can first improve the rate of learning transfer. The most widely cited ‘statistic’ is that only 10% of content which presented in the classroom is reflected in behavioural change in the workplace². The enduring nature of this old, often misquoted and potentially misleading statistic is down to its credibility³. This somewhat alarming and embarrassing figure should be a beacon for action within the learning and development community.

With a learning transfer rate as low as 10%, the opportunity to improve that rate does not seem an unsurmountable challenge. Yet despite its importance, best practice advice, particularly with respect to leadership development, is limited. Somehow, leadership learning is expected to cross the divide between classroom and workplace largely unaided, save for a couple of personal objectives, a personal development plan and personal motivation. Are we really expecting leadership knowledge to transform into improved leadership practice as if by some form of corporate osmosis?

Research suggests that the translation into improved leadership practice takes some six to 12 months to occur ⁴ ⁵ and is a recurrent process of evolution and adaptation. So who is responsible for ensuring the process does not wither and die but lives and grows to deliver that requisite return on investment? Is it practical for the leadership development provider to fulfil this role? Where should the line drawn between line manager and HRD/HRBP accountability? How important is a coach or mentor? And, how about the recently ‘developed’ leader? Somewhat surprisingly, given the growing interest in self-directed learning, respondents to a large scale survey of leadership development programme participants overwhelming believed learning transfer to be the responsibility of their organisation. Further, exactly what sort of assistance maintains leadership learning momentum?

At Awbery, we are sponsoring doctoral research into the process of learning transfer following a leadership development programme to answer these questions, so we can provide practical support to organisations to maximise as well as measure return on learning. It’s time to change that statistic which has stood for nearly 35 years. It’s time to refocus the conversation. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

To find out more about our research, please contact Jane Brockliss


¹Gurdjian, P., Halbeisen, T. & Lane, K., 2014. Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail. McKinsey Quarterly, 1, pp.121–126.

²Georgenson, D., 1982. The Problem of Transfer Calls for Partnership. Training and Development Journal, 36(10), pp.75–78.

³Ford, J., Yelon, S. & Billington, A., 2011. How Much is Transfered from Training to the Job? The 10% Delusion as a Catalyst for Thinking about Transfer. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 24(2), pp.7–24.

⁴Day, D. & Sin, H., 2011. Longitudinal Tests of an Integrative Model of Leader Development: Charting and Understanding Developmental Trajectories. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), pp.545–560.

⁵Hirst, G., Mann, B., Bain, P., Pirola-Merlo, A. & Richver, A., 2004. Learning to Lead: The Development and Testing of a Model of Leadership Learning. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(3), pp.311–327.