Research & Insights


Three Strikes and You’re Out

How to Turn Around a Leadership Development Program Slump
(November 18, 2014)

A close friend of mine was recently promoted to a senior management position, running a support function for a law firm. She and 24 other leaders were sent to a two-day leadership development program in New York City. As soon as the course ended, she called me to debrief her experience. What I heard made me think, “This is what is wrong with our profession.”

Three Strikes and You’re Out

My friend’s program included two days of classroom instruction based on a popular leadership book—one of which I am actually a fan. She also received a 360-degree feedback report based on the key concepts covered in the book. Sounds like a typical development program, right?

Unfortunately, while my friend enjoyed the program, it’s unlikely that it will have any actual impact on her performance as a leader. She didn’t disagree with the concepts taught, but said, “I don’t think my bosses actually care if I’m doing those things.” Strike one. My friend appreciated getting the 360-degree feedback, but no one offered to help her interpret and act on her report. Strike two. She shared that during the program, several of her colleagues asked what would happen next and how the ideas would be reinforced once everyone returned to work. The answer they got was “We are thinking about that and will get back to you.” Strike three.

According to my estimates and an online meeting cost calculator, the cost of people’s time in that training alone ran upwards of $44,000. Add in the cost for materials and facilitation, the conference facility, food, and lodging—the total likely tops $100,000. Bersin and other analysts have clearly demonstrated the benefits of investing in leadership development, so I’m not suggesting that $100,000 is too much. I do believe, however, that in my friend’s case, and far too many others, it is money down the drain. At best, my friend and her colleagues will remember they had a pleasant experience, learned a few interesting things, and had some nice meals.

We can do better, can’t we?

Fortunately, there are steps that any organization can take to increase the return on their investment in leadership development. Let’s take a look at where this firm struck out and my recommendations for what they could do differently next time.

Strike One: No messaging about why the program mattered.
Recommendation: Ensure Alignment

The law firm needs to start by explicitly aligning the leadership training program’s topics, concepts, and skills to the firm’s goals and mission. Are they hoping to improve productivity? Reduce turnover? Increase employee engagement? What behaviors does the firm desire and expect from program graduates? How will the program help? If the firm can’t articulate how the program will increase job and organizational success, they should rethink the program—it may not be a good investment.

Strike Two: No guidance and support in using the skills back on the job.
Recommendation: Design with Integration in Mind

For learning to translate to real-world application, the concepts, skills, and behaviors must be integrated into day-to-day work. In this case, each participant could be asked to set one or two behavioral goals based on the 360-degree feedback they received. Then, each participant could work with their boss to validate the goals and create a tactical plan for ensuring that new behaviors become part of their work routine.

Strike Three: No accountability mechanisms.
Recommendation: Develop a Sustainment Strategy

Lastly, the program owners should plan for and communicate how learners will be expected to apply new skills, as well as what they will be held accountable for in the long term. Sustainment plans help to ensure the program won’t be just “one and done.” Mechanisms could include peer forums and/or periodic check-ins with stakeholders and the executive team.

As one of my mentors once said, the steps are “simple but not easy.” These activities all take time and advance planning. While it may be tempting to skip them and go right to selecting and launching a leadership program, I believe it pays to ask whether we are looking for a genuine return on that investment or just a nice team outing.


At Wilson Learning, we strive to ensure that our clients hit a home run on their leadership development initiatives. To read more, please visit

About the Author
Wendy Mack

Wendy Mack

Wendy Mack served as Director of Consulting Services for Wilson Learning Corporation. Wendy led the team that is responsible for diagnosing client needs and designing comprehensive solutions that result in sustained behavior change and performance improvement. Wendy’s work blended her expertise in learning and development with her extensive knowledge of human performance technology, change management, and communication. She was a popular speaker at national conferences and client events and has coauthored three books on the topics of learning, leadership, and change.

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