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  • Writer's pictureIrina Ketkin

6 Common Mistakes in Leadership Development

To err is human. And in my 12 years of experience, I’ve done quite a few mistakes. Combine that with my passion for leadership development, and you get a mix of valuable lessons learned. Lessons, I hope you will avoid in your own leadership development endeavors.


In the quest to forge the leaders of tomorrow, many organizations are investing significantly in leadership development programs. Yet, despite their best intentions and resources, these programs often fall short of their intended outcomes. It’s akin to embarking on a complex recipe without fully understanding the ingredients or the cooking process - the result is likely to be less than appetizing.


This blog post will guide you through six common mistakes I’ve made and you can avoid when creating a leadership development program, drawing upon classic wisdom, real-life examples, and practical tips. Let's begin our journey.


Table of contents:


1. Lack of clear objectives

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”. This is what the Cheshire Cat told Alice when she asked him for directions. And the same should be applied to leadership development as well. A clearly defined objective gives your program focus and direction, it outlines what the program aims to achieve and what the participants will get out of it.


It's not enough to say “This leadership program aims to improve the communication skills of managers”. You need to make it specific and measurable, you need to explain what is the purpose of this program, and why people should invest their most valuable resource – their time.


How to avoid this mistake:

  • Understand in depth the company’s goals, vision, mission and strategy

  • Identify gaps in leadership capabilities (compare the current vs., desired state of their knowledge, skills, and attitudes)

  • Define specific and measurable objectives for the program

  • Communicate the objectives of the program at the beginning and throughout the entire program



2. One-Size-Fits-All Approach


You know how the same piece of clothing would look differently when worn by different people? The same is true for your leadership program. Everyone is unique – every leader has different strengths, weaknesses, previous experiences, and learning preferences. If you expect the same training program to suit everyone, you might as well get ready to be disappointed.


A simple example is a group of leaders, one of whom is a great public speaker, and the other – really good with numbers. Which of these two people would benefit more from a public speaking workshop?


How to avoid this mistake:

  • Assess the needs and preferences of each leader before the program begins.

  • Tailor the program to address these needs, using a variety of learning methods (i.e., training, eLearning, coaching, mentoring, job aids, action learning sets, etc.).

  • Allow participants to choose how they learn (i.e., present the same content in a variety of methods – video, audio, a job aid, etc.).

3. Excluding Upper Management/Senior Leaders

Every time I run a leadership program, there will be at least one person who approaches me (either publicly or privately) and says something along the lines of “My manager doesn’t do that, and it would be weird if I did it.” This breaks my heart! One very important aspect of our learning process is seeing the behaviors we should emulate in those we trust and look up to – i.e., our own manager. And when this role model is missing, there is a danger of disconnection and confusion. Not to mention the huge risk for them to undermine their own growth and development.


Another important benefit of involving senior leaders in the program is that it sends an important message to participants – “your development is important to us and we are here to support you.”


Having said that, I feel like I need to also mention that saying this isn’t enough. Actions are needed just as much, if not more. Upper management needs to be involved in the program, be a role model, and truly support the growing leaders.

How to avoid this mistake:

  • Include senior leaders in the planning and execution of the program.

  • Encourage them to participate in the program in various roles, such as guest speakers, mentors, or participants in role-playing exercises.

  • Use their experiences and insights to enrich the program by weaving their stories into the content.



4. Overlooking the Importance of Peer Learning

If you ask two leaders to spend some time discussing their leadership challenges, they will come back and be surprised that other people have the same difficulties as them. The reason they are surprised is that often, leaders work in isolation, tackling unique issues within their own departments or teams. Or so they think. They may feel that their challenges are specific to their situation and not commonly shared. This sense of isolation can be intensified by a lack of open communication or a competitive culture within the organization. By fostering conversations between leaders, we can not only dispel the myth of uniqueness but also encourage shared problem-solving and mutual support.


Learning from peers can have a profound effect on your participants – not only will they learn from each others’ experiences, but they’ll foster collaboration, and strengthen their interpersonal relationships.


How to avoid this mistake:

  • Encourage as many discussions as possible during the live sessions (be that part of a training session, workshop or webinar).

  • Use group assignments or projects to facilitate peer learning.

  • Build networking into the program to foster ongoing peer learning.

  • Implement a buddy system where leaders can share experiences and learn from each other.



5. Failing to Align with the Company Culture


Just as a fish needs water to survive, so does your leadership program need to align with your company culture to be successful. A leadership program that doesn’t take into account the values, beliefs, and practices of an organization is like a boat without a compass. It might be on a journey, but it will likely drift aimlessly without reaching a meaningful destination.

Imagine running a leadership program that emphasizes cut-throat competitiveness in a company that values collaboration and teamwork. Not only will this create cognitive dissonance among participants, but it could also erode trust and create friction within the organization.


How to avoid this mistake:

  • Understand the company’s culture, values, and beliefs in depth. This can be done by talking to senior leaders and HR Business partners, and researching both formal and informal messages across the organization.

  • Ensure that the program aligns with these and reinforces them in every aspect, from the learning objectives to the methods of instruction.

  • Illustrate alignment with company culture through examples, stories, and role plays during the program.

  • Regularly review and adjust the program as necessary to ensure it continues to fit with the company culture as it evolves.

  • Solicit feedback from participants and other stakeholders to ensure the program is resonating and driving the right behaviors.



6. Not Providing Ongoing Support


There's an old saying that Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither are great leaders. Just like an artist needs time to refine their work or a plant needs continuous care to thrive, leaders need ongoing support to fully develop their potential. A leadership program is not a one-and-done deal. Rather, it's the spark that sets off a continuous learning journey.


A common misstep is to believe that once the training sessions are over, the leaders are fully developed and ready to conquer any challenge that comes their way. But think about it, how many times have you attended a workshop and felt completely transformed, only to lose the motivation and forget half of what you learned within a few weeks?


How to avoid this mistake:

  • Implement a system for post-program follow-up and support, such as coaching and mentorship or regular check-ins.

  • Encourage leaders to set personal development goals during the program, and provide tools for tracking their progress (you can use Personal Development Plans or Learning Logs).

  • Provide resources for continuous learning, such as a curated list of books, articles, online courses, etc.

  • Create a forum or a social media group where participants can share their experiences, challenges, and successes, and learn from each other.

  • Ensure there's a support structure within the organization to help leaders apply what they've learned, overcome obstacles, and continue their growth journey.



Conclusion

As we've covered the common pitfalls in creating and running a leadership development program, it becomes clear that the road to success is more about the journey than the destination. It’s about understanding your company's unique needs and culture, ensuring that your objectives are clear and measurable, personalizing the learning experience, involving senior leadership, promoting peer learning, and providing ongoing support.

Avoiding these six common mistakes won’t guarantee an entirely smooth journey, but it will certainly ensure that you’re well-equipped to handle the bumps along the way. Remember, developing great leaders is a long-term investment, one that requires continuous nurturing, guidance, and patience.


So, as you take the next steps in your leadership development journey, keep these pitfalls in mind. The path to effective leadership might not be easy, but it is undoubtedly rewarding. What mistakes have you learned from your own experience? Let me know in the comments below.



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