people-2557396_1920American Companies spend $20 billion a year on management and leadership development, but managers aren’t improving – half of American workers say they have a bad manager and half of all managers are rated fair or worse.  Leadership development has existed for more than a century – how can it still be so poor?

Since the goal of leadership development is to help leaders behave differently (to behave in ways that are more effective in leading their teams), it’s a question of, what does the program need to help people change their behavior, from the behaviors of an average manager to a great manager?

Change is a Journey

As we detailed in  finding the missing pieces in your leadership development program, changing behavior is a process, with several steps and things have to happen at each step.  To summarize, leaders must want to change (“I need to be a better leader”), recognize what change they need (“I need to be better at difficult conversations”), know how to perform in more effective ways (“I need to give challenging feedback earlier and more often”), develop the skills to perform in those ways (“Here’s how I develop a feedback plan and keep calm while giving it”) and make the new behavior long-term, ongoing habits (“This is my plan to make feedback part of my daily work”).  A failure at any step means behavior change won’t happen.

The change journey is difficult and stressful – for example, learning to give frequent constructive feedback is difficult for people who don’t like conflict.  Effective leadership development must support leaders as they practice and build new skills and behaviors.  Lack of knowledge is rarely the issue for managers – most programs teach the knowledge of effective leadership quickly.  It’s what to do with that knowledge that leaves 90% of CEOs saying their leadership programs are ineffective. Helping – or nudging – leaders out of their comfort zones is the key to effective leader development.

The LASER Framework

Translating these steps into effective leadership development, we use the LASER framework for leader growth:

L – Learning – employees must learn how to change their behavior, and what effective behavior looks like.  Standard training programs focus on Learning – it’s what they’re most effective at doing.

A – Accountability – behavior change is hard and takes practice and effort.  In a busy world, change requires accountability to make sure employees do the work to help them change behavior.

S – Support – one of the main roadblocks to change are people’s comfort zones or personal “self-limiting” beliefs. To change, employees have to confront things that make them uncomfortable or that require them to change their beliefs about themselves.  Emotional support and encouragement are critical for this step.

E – Evaluation – learning new behavior requires trial and error, and seeing how and when the new behaviors work and when they don’t.  Evaluation of performance and feedback on the growth project are critical.

R –  Repetition – building new behavior and new leadership habits can only happen in one way – through practice, practice, practice.  This repetition makes the new behavior second nature, and reinforces it in leaders.

Each of these is essential for real growth.  Failing to address them all is one of the main reasons that leadership development doesn’t work.  Main challenges we observe from companies who have disappointing leadership programs include:

Leadership training isn’t enough

Most leadership programs focus on classroom, workshop and online learning – programs that help leaders gain knowledge about what it means to be a great leader.  But knowledge alone isn’t enough.  To get behavior change, the program must help leaders take that knowledge and develop skills, address emotional and motivational challenges, and help leaders move outside their comfort zone.

This, for example, is why so many companies are disappointed with their microlearning programs. Microlearning is great – at helping employees learn more. But traditional microlearning doesn’t help with other steps in the change process.  Microlearning may be effective at knowledge growth but not move the needle in a program that neglects other change stages.  It’s common to see companies pile more and more learning tools on leaders without recognizing that the new tools don’t fix the real problem.

Skills can’t be developed in the classroom

Gaining knowledge is important for leaders, but even more important is learning how to apply that knowledge in the ambiguous, difficult world of a team. Most leadership programs try to provide practice on applying the new skills through scenarios or role playing.  While these efforts are better than nothing, they of course do not have the depth and richness of a real issue, and are not relevant to the leader’s life. And even if leaders try to use the new knowledge in their work, the lack of accountability, support and feedback on how to improve almost always kills the leaders’ efforts before they amount to anything. Successful programs have to extend beyond the classroom.

The LASER framework helps ensure that each of the growth steps are addressed to support real change.  We use the LASER framework to specifically design our Careerwave programs to address each of the steps – when evaluating your program, be sure to refer to these steps to see if you’re missing critical elements to help your leaders grow.

Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350-person internet company. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.

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