A Leadership Development Program That Worked

Learning professionals of the future must lead negotiations with the C-suite about issues hindering organizational performance.

Leadership development is like marriage: Get it right and you’ll enjoy benefits, but get it wrong and you’ll waste time and money.

Consider the company I’ll call TA Corp, where I consulted. TA invested thousands of dollars in a multi-year program to build leadership skills among managers. Every quarter, eminent thinkers gave lectures and conducted case studies. Classes were full. Learners received feedback and took action plans to work. Learning & Development (L&D) received congratulations for an impactful program.

A year later, a CLO was hired; he began evaluating budget allocations. I conducted interviews on his behalf with participants of the leadership program. No behavior change had occurred, although they had promised to practice what they learned. I asked why. They said: no incentive to change behavior, current role unsuitable to practice new skills, fear of ridicule. As an instrument to build the leadership pipeline for a $25 billion business, the program had failed.

According to the Harvard Business Review, organizations spent $356 billion in 2015 to train employees. CEOs cite leadership development as a top priority every year, explaining $14 billion spent on leadership programs in the U.S. alone. Despite such heavy investment, employees transfer less than 10 percent of newly acquired leadership skills to their jobs.

What Is Learning Transfer?

Learning transfer has been around for 100 years. Thorndyke and Woodworth introduced it in 1901 while discussing overlap between classroom and workplace. Our brains interpret situations by connecting discrete symbols in a specific order. In similar situations, the symbols change, but the structure does not. Transfer occurs when we tease out the underlying structure and apply it for a different set of symbols.

Enabling transfer across contexts is the ultimate goal of Learning professionals. Chemistry teachers want students to understand chemical reactions, not simply memorize the periodic table. Transfer is spontaneous between identical contexts: A mechanic who fixes a problem in a test car can fix a similar problem in a customer’s car.

Transfer becomes challenging when classroom and real-life contexts differ, like in leadership programs. It is impossible to predict every challenge a leader could face, so he or she must draw abstract connections between classroom insights and real-world situations. This is challenging, so most learners blindly apply classroom solutions without customization. When this “lift and shift” strategy fails often enough, they stop trying and revert to pre-training mode.

Leeper’s “Man-Rat” study (1935) demonstrates our natural tendency to lift and shift. Participants who saw the man first thought the ambiguous “man-rat” was a man. Those who saw the rat first thought the it was a rat.

The “Man-Rat” Pictures








What Makes Transfer Effective?

  • Supervisor support: Cognitive research cites manager support as the top determinant of transfer. Supervisors must discuss with learners how to apply new skills and assign appropriate tasks. This may require temporary job rotation. Evaluating learner behavior and providing timely feedback increases transfer.
  • Conducive organizational climate: This includes organizational structure, roles, norms, and reaction to change. The more conducive a culture is to risk-taking, the safer employees feel about adopting new behavior. The effect is greater when employees are ingratiated with the brand and when executives champion the cause.
  • Relevant content: Transfer is easier when program content mirrors reality. Drawing abstract connections accelerates when case studies are based on topics proposed by the participants. This way, learners know what to expect from the program and how behavior will be evaluated.

Why Does Transfer Fail for Leadership Programs?

Leaders overlook the fact that an organization is more than its employees. I have participated in meetings where training is viewed as the solution to all organizational problems. Attrition? Schedule offsite training. Frustrated managers? Run leadership programs. This approach assumes that if people have the right skills, organizational performance automatically increases.

The reality is, organizations are systems with hierarchy, culture, policies, and roles. Culture shapes employees more profoundly than vice-versa. Therefore, until the environment becomes conducive to new skills, transfer will fail. Leaders have to examine the organizational design and study its impact on performance. Policies hindering productivity must be revised.

What Is the Solution?

Learning professionals of the future must lead negotiations with the C-suite about issues hindering organizational performance. This could be conflict among business units or power imbalance among teams. Augmenting arguments with data makes a compelling case for change. Discussing sensitive issues with authority figures requires tact, but it is an essential step toward leadership development.

Fixing systemic issues creates a development climate. Leaders and L&D co-create skill maps: lists of competencies professionals must demonstrate to be considered for promotion, and how they will be evaluated. Executives must direct business unit leaders to include leadership skills within performance management. What gets measured always gets prioritized! Learning professionals can increase transfer through pre- and post- program support.

At TA, we collected participant feedback via anonymous surveys. Supervisors said quarterly classes on new topics gave learners insufficient time to demonstrate skills on the job. Each department prioritized leadership differently: Finance valued efficiency, while consultants prioritized relationships. A generic leadership pipeline was not helping any department. Plus, there was no incentive to apply new skills. Classes were theoretical and learners forgot everything they learned.

We presented TA executives a list of preferred leadership competencies for each department. We developed a leadership framework with reduced but relevant competencies to focus on, a year at a time. Leadership skill was included in goal setting and performance evaluations. For every manager attending the program, his or her leader had to present examples to an executive group that determined an overall ranking.

L&D translated each competency into constituent tasks, designing workshops containing relevant content. Managers understood how they would be evaluated. L&D introduced a gamified portal with videos, case studies, and leaderboards. Participants’ success stories were circulated to inspire others.

Within a year, executives observed a marked difference in how managers engaged with clients and peers. It was easy to identify top performers. Managers understood what behavior was expected of them and why. They forgot the theory but remembered to make abstract connections across different situations, and that’s all that mattered.

Anjana Karumathil is an L&D professional and project manager.


  • Thorndike, E. L., and Woodworth, R. S. (1901). “The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions,” Psychological Review, 8, pp. 247-261.
  • Leeper, R. (1935). “A Study of a Neglected Portion of the Field of Learning - The Development of Sensory Organization,” The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, (46).
  • Beer, M.; Eisenstat, R.; and Spector, B. (1990). “Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change,” Harvard Business Review, Nov.–Dec., pp. 158-166.
  • Day, S. (2012). Introduction to “New Conceptualizations of Transfer of Learning,” Educational Psychologist, 47(3), pp. 1-4
  • Tonhauser, R., and Buker, L. (2016). “Determinants of Transfer of Training: A Comprehensive Literature Review,” International Journal for Research in Vocational Education and Training, 3 (02), pp. 127-165
  • Beer, M.; Finnstrom, M.; and Schrader, D. (2016). “Why Leadership Training Fails—And What to Do About It,” Harvard Business Review, October, pp. 50-57.


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