Is Employee Development Really Important?

Employees in a Professional Development Meeting


Ask that question to 100 enlightened business leaders and nearly all of them will respond with a resounding “yes, of course it is.” The supporting evidence is immense – American businesses spent $170 Billion in 2013 on Leadership Development programs. As Larry Bossidy argued in his NY Times best-selling book Execution, knowing and doing are two different things. If you search for “why leadership development programs fail” you will find pages and pages of articles explaining why so many programs fail. So, if leaders believe development and engagement are truly important, why aren’t they doing better in these areas?

Our experience tells us that these are five common causes of failure in developing employees:

1. Disconnecting Training From Reality

While sending individuals to university or corporate programs away from the work site may pay some dividends in terms of making the employee feel valued, the opportunity loss is not worth it. While learning in a group from different businesses and cultures offers an interesting experience for the learner, the learning becomes diffused and hard to apply back in the home location. One client characterized this approach as heating a single brick red hot and throwing it in your swimming pool in an effort to raise the temperature – the heat rapidly dissipates and there is no difference in the temperature. This is probably the major reason that professionals in the field rate individual off-site education or training as the least effective development method.

2. Lack of Needs Assessment

Is the development provided a result of solid needs analysis or is it merely a reaction to what the decision maker thinks is the problem? One good example of this failure cause is a client who requested that we do “team building” for one of their teams. Upon examination, the “team” was really a co-acting group of seven sub-business heads who were each incented and recognized for their own unit’s individual success and profitability – not at all on the collective organizational outcomes. All the team building training in the world would not make this a more cohesive team without aligning the underlying pay and compensation system.

3. No Strategic Goal

According to the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will lead you there.” One of the principles outlined in the management book The Rockefeller Habits is “Begin with the end in mind”. Too often, this principle is ignored and training events become a series of discrete events unconnected to each other except for the presence of the same trainers. These events then become entertainment– a day away from “real work” and thus not effective in changing behavior.

4. Failure to Measure and Follow Up

Each of the causes above contribute to this one. If the training is not realistic, tied to real work and with a clear goal in mind, it is not possible to measure its impact. Lacking real measurement, the only data we have to go on is the typical post training evaluation “smile sheet” that focus on how much participants like their lunch and the training facility. Happy employees are not necessarily developing employees.

5. Inappropriate Time Allocation

The final common cause is allowing time to drive the material and not the other way around. In other words, sometimes the decision maker decides to curtail the amount of time spent in training because they wish to minimize “time off the floor.” In this case, so much is crammed into such a short time frame that learners have no opportunity for reflection and application. The flip side is spreading the content out over such a long time that there is no connection of the learners to the material – by the time the next session rolls around the learners have forgotten the subject at hand.

Experts agree that on average only about 15% of learners gain long term behavior change. There is an obvious disconnect between the amount spent and the advantages gained. How, then, can you avoid the pitfalls and get a better return on what you spend?

  • Analyze before acting. First, decide on the desired outcomes of the program. What does the desired new state look like? What organizational stakeholders need to be included in these conversations? Who needs to be involved in the learning? Is it really a skills deficiency or is there an underlying system or process cause?
  • Obtain high level buy-in. Without the support of the learners’ bosses and their bosses, learning takes a low priority, leading to higher learner absenteeism and tardiness or early departures. Employees learn quickly to care about the things their bosses care about – and not to care about things they don’t.
  • Clearly and realistically list the behavioral outcomes of the program. Set up a system to measure them both pre and post training. The ability to measure and show improvement will lead to higher levels of support and enthusiasm for future programs.
  • Tie the learning to results in the workplace. Training sequences should be spaced out far enough that the learners can actually take the topics back into the work place and apply them. Part of the focus of each session should be best practices and obstacles encountered. Peer learning is a powerful tool, but only if it is encouraged. Give participants an opportunity to try new behaviors and discuss them in subsequent sessions.
  • Follow up. The way to increase long term behavior change is to have a follow plan to the training. Some companies have regular “alumni” events where they bring learners back together; others establish an e-mail distribution list and encourage learners to continue to share items helpful to them. No matter what it is, some sort of follow up helps embed change.

From this brief discussion, it seems apparent that “one size fits all” learning probably does not actually fit anyone.

Developing employees is, of course, critically important! Commit to a focused and disciplined approach that from the beginning optimizes the outcome for the organization and the participants – and creates the greatest return on the investment. Invest wisely as you plan for your organization’s future!