The Problem With Leadership Development Programs – And How To Fix It

HR MATTERS JACK BUCALOLet’s face it. The ultimate customer of any Leadership Development and Training program is a company’s CEO and top line management, executives. For decades now, such programs have failed in their eyes because they offered little or no practical business value in relation to the amount of valuable line executive time expended on them.

To fully understand this problem, we must first examine the relationship of the various HR leaders to the CEO and top line management executives. Survey after survey, decade after decade, has concluded that they do not consider their HR leaders as an equal business partner for many reasons.

First, HR leaders have little or no operational, financial or strategic understanding of the business. Second, HR leaders are considered as theoretical and conceptual thinkers, rather than practical business thinkers. Third, they are viewed as an HR person FIRST and a business person a distant SECOND. Fourth, the CEO and line management executives have little respect for the HR function, while HR leaders expect that this respect should be given them because of their job title. They do not understand that the respect must be EARNED. Fifth, HR leaders are usually too concerned with their administrative duties, almost to the exclusion of helping the CEO and top line management executives to achieve the company’s annual business objectives and strategic plan goals.

Now, let’s characterize the typical leadership development training program. It usually presents the basic concept of some leadership theories, such as Emotional Intelligence, leadership styles, behaviors and characteristics of effective leaders, Good to Great Level 5 leader mix of humility and professional will, executive vision, interpersonal skills, among others. An exercise or two is then used to examine the theory in greater depth and, perhaps, follow-up coaching may be used. Therefore, in teaching leadership this way, the practical application of the theory usually rests with the executive who tries to apply it to some simplistic interpersonal aspect of his/her job.

Now, here comes a hard truth that all HR executives and leadership gurus must REALISTICALLY DEAL WITH. As long as investors and the market hold the Boards and top management of any private or public company accountable for achieving certain financial and operating objectives over the short term and long term, the practical reality of today’s real business world is that business leaders must have BOTH technical/executive “hard” skills and leadership “soft” skills. From the line management perspective, they typically view these skills in an 80% to 20% mix. Some of the hard skills include management skills, executive skills, financial skills, functional (Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, etc.) skills, strategic planning, market and product planning, product development, operational excellence, customer care, among others.

Therefore, the way to fix this problem of line management seeing little or no business value in Leadership Development programs is to change how such programs are developed. They should not simply deal with changing leadership style and interpersonal behavior. Rather, they should utilize AN APPROPRIATE MIX of “hard” and “soft” skills, TAUGHT TOGETHER, while applying them to the executive’s actual business objectives and plans. Though this is not easy to do; it is the right thing to do and it can be done. HR leaders need to accept and deal better with the “hard” skills. Typically, they tend to lean almost exclusively toward the “soft” skills because they are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with the “hard” skills, and shy away from the company’s annual business objectives and strategic plan goals which utilize these “hard” skills.

Chief HR Officers must recognize that YOU CANNOT TEACH LEADERSHIP IN A VACUUM; devoid of the many “hard” skills that are required of line management. It must be taught in the context of the “hard” and “soft” skills TOGETHER. Here’s a real-life example from a $4 billion company. A training needs analysis was conducted for a group of 80 business unit presidents who were running businesses ranging from $25 to $400 million per annum. It revealed that the key subjects for the program were Financial Management, Strategic Product/Market Planning, Client Executive Management Relations and Leadership. A 30 hour program was developed to meet those needs which taught leadership in relation to improving Income and Cash Flow Statement performance, determining the next version of the products and finding new markets for them (along with the current ones), and how to interact with your client’s top management to better understand their strategic goals and how our products and services could better help them in this regard. The line executives who attended the program had an annual cash compensation range of $400K to $800K and they evaluated it as a 4.5 on a 5.0 scale.

IF the CHRO provides such a Leadership Development program, while providing some innovative HR training and facilitative services that help the CEO and line executives to improve their operational efficiency and achieve their business objectives, he/she will greatly improve their chances of becoming an equal business partner.

Therefore, the real question for the CHRO is: How many Leadership Development programs have to fail in the eyes of YOUR CUSTOMERS before you make a fundamental change that reflects the reality of the 80% “hard” and 20% “soft” skills mix, taught together, in the context of the executive’s actual business objectives and plans?


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.

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    • Thanks for your comments Mary; I always appreciate them. Yes, systems thinking is an inherent part of the process. Jack.

  1. Thanks for commenting, Ben. Here’s my view on the subject.
    Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, the term ‘management’ was undefined until the AMA contracted a large research study to define it. The published book, entitled ‘The Management Profession’ by Louis Allen, provided a detailed definition and understanding of what constituted ‘management’ that is still used today.
    Unfortunately, the term ‘leadership’ is still undefined for worldwide use and we suffer from that fact as book after book, story after story, article after article, define it AS THEY SEE A SMALL PART OF IT.
    Therefore, in my article, I defined it within the context of a business leader who needs a multitude of skill sets to be successful … both hard and soft skills.
    Hope this helps you understand the context of my article. Wouldn’t it be great for some prestigious organization to undertake the definition of ‘leadership’ in a similar DETAILED manner provided by Louis Allen.

  2. You are quite right about the failings of leadership development programs. But the reason they fail is they don’t know what leadership is or better, what it is that followers follow and why they react the way they do to what management does and does not do. In other words they don’t understand the science of people because if they did they would know exactly what leadership is and what actions will and will not create a highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged workforce that loves to come to work and is at least 300% more productive than if poorly engaged.