Leadership development is big business. There is an obscene number of players offering programmes promising to impart hard and soft skills required by today’s leaders. Businesses globally spend billions of pounds every year to upskill current and future leaders – often with frustrating results. According to the Harvard Business Review, over 50% of senior leaders believe their talent development efforts do not appropriately build the critical skills required. In our webinar Developing Effective Leaders to Deliver your Business Strategy, we revealed shocking data in that only 10-20% of people make sustained change in their behaviour after a learning intervention.

Why are leadership development interventions failing, and what can we do about it?

Traditional leadership development

Historically, leadership development programmes have been designed to focus on discipline-based skill sets, for example, strategy development and financial skills – which are critical to business. However, these ‘one-size-fits-all’ interventions are unlikely to meet all the needs of the business.

Leadership development programmes are typically episodic, well-branded and packaged as the ‘hero-event’, where the who’s who are lucky enough to get selected to attend. They tend to be exclusive, often hosting ‘celebrity’ speakers – and are usually extremely expensive. Trip to a French Chateau, anyone?

Under all the glitz and glam, there is a fundamental flaw – a single training intervention is rarely going to 1) address the development needs of every individual and 2) align the skills being taught to those critically required by present-day business with the ambition of improving business performance.

The individual’s development needs

Businesses invest in leadership development programmes for the long-term good of the organisation. However, individuals may participate for their own skill development or career advancement. Perhaps I feel I have the potential to sing, and so I develop my skill to belt out a few high notes. This polished skill is unlikely going to serve the needs of the business. At an individual level, it is more appropriate to perhaps reflect on what can be done differently that would achieve better results.

The business’s critical needs

We all know that leadership development is important for the current and long-term investment in people. Typical criteria in selecting such programmes may be based on who the provider is or a referral. Prestigious business schools and relevant providers appear to be the wise choice.  After all, their very focus is creating content that is in line with global trends in desirable skills. Likewise, there appears to be value in selecting a programme that yielded great success for someone else.

The problem is that, by their very nature, leadership development programmes that attempt to cover many different items cannot possibly address the very specific outcomes you need for your business.

What is the solution?

Leadership development is powerful – if used appropriately.  The need for it is urgent as we realise that for a business to survive in today’s uncertain, ambiguous, complex and volatile environments, it needs leadership skills different from those that helped in the past. Adopting a more purposeful, strategic approach to leadership development will yield greater ROI.

As someone making decisions on leadership development interventions for the business, ask yourself these pertinent questions:

1. What are you trying to develop?
Identify the specific skills and behaviours relevant to the future of your business and objectively assess your current leadership capability. This will provide you with a clearer set of leadership development objectives and the basis from which to design relevant development needs.

2. What is the best way to develop?
There are many ways leaders can learn new skills and selecting the right learning format is dependent on both the what and the who.  The combination of content and audience should be understood in determining format rather than attempting to force people into predetermined programme structures.

3. Who should be participating?
Leadership is typically a collective effort and leadership development should be too.  If the business has five key skills that require developing, then we should be smart about who needs to invest in developing which skill.

4. How do the participants learn best/how do we evaluate impact?
This requires some knowledge of the participants’ learning preferences or styles. Listening, speaking, reading and writing are still the world’s best vehicles for education, but doing is likely to help understand the extent to which a new skill or behaviour has been developed. It’s why the business breakfasts we offer pivot on a very practical piece to solidify learning.  Evaluating impact is not about assessing the development activity or the participants’ learning, but their ability to do something different that has the intended result.


Although leadership development has evolved, there is still wastage of time and money being spent on generalised solutions that value commoditisation over customisation.  Now is the time for business leaders to demand more targeted solutions based on clearer and more specific identification of their development needs.


Blackmore Four offer specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation.  Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.  Contact us to find out more about our workshops on leadership needs analysis and assessment or to discuss how best to apply this to your business.


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