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According to Mckinsey most Leadership Development programs fail. 4 ways to improve your program impact

Nowadays, companies invest a lot of time and money in developing leadership skills by offering expensive leadership development programs to their (top) talents and leaders. However, the exact results of these programs often remain unclear. McKinsey has executed two large-scale studies[1], which included the surveying of more than 500 CEOs. The results have shown that only 7% of CEOs believe their organization is effectively investing in proper leadership development. Only 10% of CEOs state that their leadership development programs have a significant impact.

In this blog article, we will take a closer look at the McKinsey studies and discuss the four most common mistakes made during the development and roll-out of leadership development programs and how to best avoid these mistakes and how to increase the impact of leadership and talent development tools.

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  1. Do not overlook context

A leadership development program should fit the organizational context. Strategy and organizational culture are important factors that call for a custom-made curriculum, which does not just consist of the standard skill sets or leadership styles. However, with many leadership development programs, the assumption that one size fits all prevails. When attention is not sufficiently paid to the personal skills and goals of the participants, the focus on the behavior that truly matters in the context of the organization will be lost.

We propose a different approach. This involves speaking with various stakeholders to learn more about the strategy and organizational culture during the design phase of a leadership development program. Their input helps identify the organization’s qualities, needs, and the participants' applicable behavioral development opportunities. Also, the content of the leadership program is to be given shape during the design phase. During this phase, it is important to determine how and when certain themes will be addressed and how the required skills will be trained and applied in daily practice of the participants.

During the program, the individual development needs of participants are combined with the strategic objectives of the organization. This way the translation of the direction the organization wants to take into the day to day practice and professional growth of the leaders and talents is achieved. 

  1. Do not decouple reflection from real work

The McKinsey studies show that off-site leadership development programs are effective because participants are given the opportunity to step back and are not distracted by daily job duties and responsibilities. However, in these situations, the “transfer of learning”is no more than ten per cent. In other words, only ten per cent of the knowledge and insights participants gain during the off-site training, is retained and can be applied during their daily job.

When building a leadership development program, the best way to maximize the transfer of learning is by enabling participants to apply their new skills during real, on-the-job projects. This is why we propose a continuous blended approach: combining off-site training initiatives with real business cases where participants are applying their new skills while receiving personal guidance from their own online coach. While executing a practical assignment and practicing leadership skills and competencies, every participant enters an in-depth dialogue with their coach, in which the learning process is integrated, facilitated and anchored in their daily practice. This facilitates the natural way of development and ensures a more steep professional development curve. 

  1. Do not underestimate the impact of underlying thoughts and feelings

Developing new leadership skills requires specific behavioral changes. Most organizations are aware that their managers could benefit from a change in mindset. Although it may be a challenge to encourage managers to identify their underlying thoughts, feelings, beliefs and assumptions, it remains an essential precondition for achieving real behavioral change. This level of depth lacks in most leadership programs, which may offer an explanation for the low impact with regards to the transfer of learning.

In order to identify the underlying mindset and to raise self-awareness, we make use of a behavioral model, designed specifically for our continuous blended approach. Based on this model every participant will start with a detailed analysis of their reality (i.e. the obstacles they encounter in their workplace) and the limitations and possibilities within this reality (while emphasizing the possibilities). Subsequently, new individual development objectives and work strategies are explored. Read more. This way participants understand and can explain their own behavior and management styles, which is a prerequisite to increase their impact and achieve their individual goals. 


  1. Do not forget to measure the results

McKinsey concludes that organizations often invest in the development of leadership skills without evidence that these programs actually deliver the desired results. When improvement is not monitored and measured, the improvement initiatives are often taken less seriously and the required adjustments are not made accordingly. In order to monitor and establish real progress, it is important to assess the leadership development program throughout the entire process. This strategy shows whether or not the program has had the desired effect and is worthy of the investment made. 

Our advice is to, during the design phase of the program, define how, what and when the effects of the program are to be measured. This way, adjustments can still be made during the course of the program and the results can be objectively determined after the program is completed. The success of the program should be assessed at both an organizational and an individual level.

By doing so, it becomes clear what the program has to offer its participants and the organization. We recommend introducing three to four assessments: a baseline assessment at the start of the program, followed by an assessment during the program to evaluate possible changes, an assessment at the end of the program, and an assessment a few months later in order to assess the sustainability of the effects. During these assessments, the focus should be on drive, personality, mindset and individual objectives. These objectives are measured using 360-degree feedback. By asking the participant's colleagues or manager(s) for feedback, they are actively being involved in the development process, which contributes to achieving a more objective assessment and actual results. Read more.


In summary, the McKinsey’s studies show exactly how important it can be to not only design leadership development programs to match their specific organizational context, but also to pay close attention to what is needed in the workplace and for the participants individually. In addition, identifying the managers’ underlying mindsets is highly recommended. Only then, lasting behavioral change can be established. Last but not least, the impact of the program should be measured accordingly. At eCoachPro, we always include these steps during the development of effective, custom-made leadership development programs. Here, you can find more information about a recent program we developed for Euroports, one of Europe’s largest port-infrastructure companies. 

If you are looking for an effective leadership development program that meets the aforementioned requirements and if you would like to know more about the possibilities we offer, please contact Marc Coenen. Or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

[1]McKinsey Quarterly: Why leadership-development programmes fail, 2014.
   - McKinsey Quarterly: Leadership-development survey of 510 executives, 2017.

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