Why Leadership Programs Don't Work (Hint: It's Not the Coach)

Last Updated Mar 16, 2011 4:25 PM EDT

When I think about the effectiveness of corporate leadership development programs , I think of a piece I read by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, about education reform in this country. He noted that billions have been poured into impressive, new school programs, most with negligible effect. When schools have produced dramatic gains, it's been because the students care, the teachers care, and the parents care.

In other words, it's not about how elaborate the program is--it's about the people.

When it comes to corporate leadership programs, I'll go one step further: it's not about the quality of the program, or even the coach--it's all about YOU. How engaged are you in learning to become a better leader?

A few years ago Howard Morgan, the executive search consultant, and I studied eight different companies and 86,000 participants, 11,000 of whom were leaders. Often, when companies have measured the success of executive coaching programs, they've asked the participants to rate the instructor, the room, even the food. Howard and I wanted to gauge satisfaction by how much long term change was produced, as judged by the stakeholders: the people who actually work with the leaders themselves.

So in our study, every leader focused on one to three specific areas of improvement, received feedback through a 360 process, and was then asked to discuss what he/she learned with coworkers. We also asked co-workers to assess whether this person became a more effective leader.

The results:
  • When the leader had no follow up, nothing changed. When people said, 'My colleague went to this program, but he didn't talk to me about it," it was a complete waste of time.
  • With a little follow up with co-workers, there was some improvement.
  • With a lot of follow up--consistent, periodic check-ins with a colleague--the results went through the roof.
The bottom line: It's all about you, not the coach, not the book, not the program. If you're reading a book or listening to lectures on leadership, but you don't actually do the work and it's like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger lift weights--you're not going to get muscles. That's why we later wrote an article, based on this study, called, "Leadership is a Contact Sport." To become a better leader, you must have the fire within to change, do the actual work, and--this is key--have the humility and courage to discuss your progress with a colleague.

Yes, a coach can help you, but the key variable is you, and your relationship to the people around you.

Have you had a successful coaching experience? What made the difference for you?

Related: image courtesy of flickr user, euthman
  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.