Modified behavior can’t occur without a culture that is open to change.

Training solutions are almost the default option to meeting capability gaps. Hire someone; train him. Create new positions; train the new job incumbents. Roll out a major change effort requiring new capabilities; train everyone in the new capabilities.

The same is true when it comes to training people in leadership capabilities. While the debate continues as to whether leadership is best learned or only learned through work experience, leadership training programs continue to flourish.

Though training expenditures have declined precipitously due to the recessionary economy, Bersin & Associates reports that overall training costs were in excess of $48 billion in the United States in 2009. Twenty-four percent of that total is attributed to leadership development. New leader; train him. New leadership positions; train the new job incumbents. Major change initiative; train everyone in leading change.

Clearly, training is important. We can't expect people who lack skills or who do not understand how to do their jobs to perform. Therefore, we are not arguing against having strong, effective training programs. Instead, we want to focus more on whether the promise of training will be realized back on the job.

Training equation

We've come a long way toward understanding what to teach aspiring leaders and those whose level, scope, and specific work challenges have changed. The focus on competencies during the past two decades, and an understanding of what it means to build a leadership pipeline, combine to inform us about what leaders must learn to be successful. These widely accepted and commonly used approaches help ensure that development efforts are appropriately focused.

In addition, research on training program evaluation demonstrates that we are continually improving in our efforts to develop meaningful and effective instructional programs, at least for those organizations that provide appropriate resources, support, and time to better ensure that learning occurs. We are more able to understand how to design training that produces learning. There seems to be little doubt that well-designed and supported training can result in enhanced job-related knowledge and skills.

The next part of the equation is learning transfer. Transfer of learning to the job is of critical importance given that it is estimated that only 10 percent of learning from training is transferred to the job. Indeed, there is a large literature base on this issue that identifies the personal, training, and organizational factors that influence transfer. Even though this research helps us to better answer the question of how to make training transfer to the job, it may be that we need to "question the question."

The key to effective problem solving is to first identify the right problem. If we apply this thinking to training leaders, this leads to a new and useful avenue to pursue in leadership development efforts.

It appears that much of our efforts in leadership training have been aimed at answering, "How can we do a better job of teaching leadership competencies?" This question focuses attention squarely on how to make training better and more applicable. What if we were to ask a different question that assumes that training is not the central issue? Consider: "What must we do to ensure that important competencies are reflected in behavior on the job?"

This question is not about training people to have more effective competencies. It is about doing all the things necessary to ensure that people develop and use newly acquired leadership competencies on the job. This is more than a subtle difference—it helps us make a corresponding shift from a training paradigm to a broader change paradigm.

The change paradigm

The change paradigm is more holistic than the training paradigm. It does not make assumptions about whether people will want to apply new learning or whether they will find a favorable organizational context to apply their new learning. Rather, it takes these factors into account in the design of leadership development efforts. It becomes a roadmap to guide leaders to produce new and more productive behaviors on the job.

Like any change effort, this means that factors that strongly affect behavior must be identified and intentionally addressed. When it comes to people enacting new leadership competencies, the change paradigm highlights the following factors that will influence behavioral change:

  • The culture must make it safe for people to take the risks associated with acting in new and different ways.
  • People must see the reasons for development and understand the business and personal consequences if those competencies are not enacted.
  • People must have the capabilities—for example, the abilities, skills, and experiences—needed to do the job.
  • Others in their social net, such as supervisors and peers, must legitimize development activities, encourage learning and the application of new competencies, and model these new competencies.
  • Others in their social net must enable people to apply these new competencies on the job, for example, through feedback or coaching.
  • Organizational systems, such as performance appraisals, must be aligned with development objectives rather than with the status quo.
  • Organizational resources, such as the information, opportunity, and time necessary to fully use their new capabilities, must be made available to support the development effort.

Helping people develop new understandings, use new workplace tools, develop new capabilities, see new possibilities, and appreciate acting in a disciplined manner around policies, practices, and processes will be at the heart of leadership development programs. But in the change paradigm, training is just a part of a well-designed leadership development effort. Other important factors on the change roadmap will determine whether people apply new competencies on the job.

As seen in the table below, the training and change paradigms differ in five major areas, producing different mindsets and likely different outcomes.

The ultimate goal of the training paradigm is to affect behavior and results on the job. However, from this mindset, training leaders tend to focus on the more immediate mission that is within their control. They are the experts on adult learning, and they are in touch with the latest learning technologies.

Even when training is conducted explicitly with the goal of affecting behavior and results on the job, training leaders tend to measure their success at the level of the training itself, in large part because that reflects their expertise and because the training itself is within their sphere of influence. Finally, when the call goes out for enhancements and improvements, the training department is seen as the responsible party.

The change paradigm also fosters a mindset focused directly on how to improve behavior and results on the job. In this instance, however, change leaders are sensitive to work setting and organizational factors that must be addressed for real change to occur. For example, changes may be needed in work design, the appraisal system, the reward system, and how information is communicated. There may not be a critical mass of senior leaders who legitimize, support, and model the new behaviors. Supervisors may need to adopt a broader stewardship role for helping their direct reports to better learn and display the new behaviors on the job. Leadership development efforts must consider these and other such factors.

Examples of attempts to address some of the organizational conditions that will support real change, beyond training, have been reported. For example, several companies (such as Verizon) have aligned key organizational systems (for example, performance appraisal and reward systems) with their leadership competency model. This included an alignment with leadership training objectives as well.

Other companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell and AT&T, ask supervisors to coach direct reports who return to the job following training programs, or have them provide time and resources to allow application of the training on the job.

ARAMARK sends cross-functional teams of managers into leadership programs, who then work together on an action-learning project. These teams are supported by a business unit liaison, which provides the teams with insider information needed to understand and successfully complete their assignment. Thus, some companies have recognized the need to bridge the gap between training and application.

Making the shift

Moving from a training paradigm to a change paradigm will not be easy for training professionals steeped in experience, expertise, and tradition. That's what mindsets do—they keep us stuck in older ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. To move toward a change paradigm, training leaders need to honestly answer three critical questions.

First: Will the leadership training I advocate, no matter how well conducted, be sufficient to produce behavior change on the job? This is at the heart of the value-add of training. Training is a means to an end. To limit the scope of our influence to training alone may mean that we fall short of meeting our end goal of seeing new leadership competencies enacted in the work setting.

Second, for any particular competency, if training is seen as necessary but not sufficient to produce behavior change on the job, then the training leader needs to ask: What is there about the work setting that would act as an obstacle to meaningful transfer of learning?

In essence, training leaders need to think like a line leader, identifying factors in the work setting (for example, whether supervisors will encourage learning and provide opportunities to use new competencies) that need to be addressed before the lessons learned in training will have a chance to transfer to actual work.

Finally, once identified, the training leader should ask: How will I create needed changes in the work setting that will make it more likely that meaningful transfer of learning will occur? This likely will involve a partnership with line leaders who want and need to deliver results, and whose responsibilities include addressing work setting issues that conspire against getting those results.

Viewed through the change paradigm, training is not the sole lever for new behavior. It is just one part, albeit an important part, of an effective development strategy. When training leaders embrace this view, they gain newborn ability to see training meet its expectations. Without this paradigmatic shift, training leaders will act from a mindset that limits their ability to influence results on the job itself. They know this and they bemoan it, and yet they do it anyway.

For example, we met with a senior leadership development manager from a large business who asked for our involvement in creating a new leadership program. As we talked, he expressed a series of concerns that made us believe that any program he implemented would fall short of meeting his intended goals. He spoke of resource inadequacies, overburdened supervisors who would do their best to keep their people out of this program, and political realities that would make it unsafe for participants to use any new skills learned in their leadership programs.

When he was asked how he planned to address these concerns, he threw up his hands and said there was nothing he could do. It was a frustrating conversation. He knew he was going to fail, he knew why, and he did nothing about it.

The meeting ended, and that was the last we heard from him. We learned later that he did develop and implement a new training program that by all accounts was state-of-the-art and delivered superbly by talented trainers. But, because this leadership development leader operated from a training paradigm, he made no attempt to create a supportive context. Ultimately, we learned that this training program was not successful—there were no meaningful changes in behavior and the anticipated benefits to the organization did not materialize.

Achieving the ultimate goal

In the final analysis, training leaders who are rooted in the change paradigm, or who are able to make this shift, are more likely to see the full promise of training. They do not pretend that training can do all the heavy lifting when it comes to leadership development. Excellence in training is crucial, but the real challenge is how to accomplish behavioral change.

Training's power to produce lasting change will be multiplied as we see a more complete picture through the lens of the change paradigm. We will see that people may need more support and reinforcement on the job than training alone has to offer. We will recognize that people need encouragement from their direct supervisors to apply their new learning on the job, and need to be supported by them when they attempt to apply that learning.

Organizational systems may need to be realigned to support the changes that the company is asking of its people. These kinds of front-end and back-end considerations are vital to achieving the ultimate goal of behavior change on the job. Taken together, we can see that great training, while critical, will seldom be the sole answer to effective leadership development.