Most everyone would agree that the training and development of managers is a critical component of success for organizations — especially if you believe that a stronger leadership team makes a competitive difference. Yet despite its importance, when times are tough management training and development budgets are among the first to be cut. More often than not the reason behind this apparent contradiction is the lack of a clear connection between such training and results. Without this connection, cost-conscious executives at best view management development as a "nice" but discretionary expense and at worst as unnecessary time off.
Let's look at a quick example: The leadership development staff of a large pharmaceutical company worked with a well-known business school to create a five-day residential program on "becoming a senior leader" for their top 400 managers (just below the executive ranks). Over the course of two years, the company ran the program four times, with twenty-five managers attending each session. Each of the programs included visits from the CEO and other executives to talk about the company's strategy; case studies of other companies taught by world-class business school professors; and time for the participants to network and get to know each other. Postsession feedback was extremely positive, with participants saying that they enjoyed the program and "learned a great deal." However, six months later none of the participants could say that their business or function was any better off as a result of the program; and few could cite anything that they were personally doing differently. Based on this assessment combined with the multimillion dollar cost of the program and a budget squeeze, the program was cancelled and most of the leadership development staff was let go.
Unfortunately, this example is not atypical. Many companies create leadership programs that are filled with good content and delivered with great skill, but without any kind of measurable business impact, they eventually die on the vine.
Luckily the "fix" for these kinds of programs is really quite simple: Require that participants come to the program with a specific business challenge (either individually or as a team); build time into the program to create a plan for addressing that challenge based on the content that is presented; and then insist that managers execute against these plans after the program. Firms such as GE, Honeywell, Siemens, and many others have used this approach for years with great success — and have documented many millions of dollars of benefits. In essence they have transformed their leadership development activities from a "cost center" to a "profit center" — which makes them much more difficult to dismiss when budgets get tight.
Now that the recession is (hopefully) ending and companies are reinstating some of their budget cuts, perhaps this is a good time to take a fresh look at your management development activities — and how they can be more directly connected to real business results. Ask yourself these questions: Are the participants in your management development programs "on the hook" to apply their learnings to real issues back on the job? Will the content of your programs give managers new insights into getting things done? Do the designs of the programs allow time for participants to create implementation plans? Are your program instructors pushing past casual discussion and facilitating specific back-at-work application of learning? Have you built in follow-up to make sure that managers translate their learnings into action?
Based on these questions, how do the management development programs in your company stack up?