Stop learning, start developing: how to avoid a poor ROI on learning and development for senior leaders

Learning and development programmes for senior leaders need to focus on development, rather than learning in order to deliver a return on investment. Poor past experience or programmes that have not delivered a significant ROI convince senior people that L&D is a waste of time, which further diminishes the return of current or future programmes. If L&D professionals are to drive change and deliver business outcomes, they need to develop their leaders, not teach them.

Proving and delivering value: a double bind

Learning and development professionals find themselves swimming against the tide where they have to convince a sceptical audience of L&D’s value and attempt to deliver a return in the face of such scepticism. Learning and development programmes that fail to deliver a return on investment do taint the view of L&D in the eyes of senior leaders. Yet that’s only one reason why L&D professionals often find themselves striving to prove the value of L&D. A number of challenges arise out of conditions that prove difficult for L&D.

There’s often pressure to align L&D strategy to business strategy. That sounds reasonable and logical, so why the issue? Lack of clarity within the business around its strategy results in moving goalposts and L&D colleagues that are constantly chasing a moving object. Lack of clarity invariably emanates from ineffective leadership and an unstable business culture. L&D professionals know that they need to raise awareness of the role L&D can play in supporting the organisation so it can achieve its goals. Yet when the leadership is unstable, it’s hard to do that. Finally, a lack of understanding of what L&D can do results in a lack of investment and the use of the resource as a quick-fix tool.

These elements combine to pose a significant challenge to L&D professionals. Not only must they prove their worth, and how they can deliver meaningful value to the organisation, they must do so with limited resource and facing a lack of understanding.

How to understand the roadblocks to quality development work

To grasp why L&D professionals are faced with so many hurdles, it’s necessary to look at why these hurdles arise. Saying that ‘senior leaders just don’t understand the value of L&D’ is all very well, yet it lays the blame at their feet. To demonstrate value, L&D professionals need to give leaders an experience that illustrates it in a literal way. Getting to this point is tough – especially if there’s resistance to or scepticism about learning and development.

As indicated above, this is usually due to a negative past experience – which isn’t always to do with ROI. Many programmes focus on learning, with the development part very much secondary. Senior people already have abundant practical knowledge. Simply teaching them is unlikely to engage them, prompt a deeper understanding of themselves, or challenge long-held beliefs. An experience that allows for a thorough exploration of values, beliefs, biases, personality and emotional intelligence is necessary to develop creative problem solving and relations with others. This is unlikely to happen in a classroom and certainly not on an e-learning platform.

Even if L&D professionals convince senior leaders to invest in a programme with a substantial development element, the exercise isn’t immune from defeat. In fact, programmes fall at the first fence when the Training Needs Analysis, or diagnostic phase, is bypassed. In the desire to get things done, or under the pressure of a tight deadline, L&D professionals can be dissuaded from carrying out a diagnosis, especially when dealing with senior people who ‘already know what they need.’ A diagnosis gives a clear picture of the desired outcomes and the group’s needs. A diagnosis makes a stronger case for the senior team to commit the time and money to a development programme.

The importance of space and time to a programme can’t be overstated. Together these elements form one of the most important pillars of a successful L&D programme. When faced with a crisis, there’s always a risk that senior people will want a quick, one-off fix to a problem. This won’t work and will further damage the view of L&D. A longer period of time is needed with multiple interventions. The environment also matters a great deal. Participants need to disconnect from the office distractions and everyday stresses. The physical and psychological environment influences the development process.

And while all of the above factors are important, the space and time element is crucial. This goes some way to explaining why the 70:20:10 model is not always the answer. A programme where 70% of the time is on-the-job learning sounds ideal. But that learning needs to be captured and reflected upon. The business culture should permit reflection and senior people need to lead the way as reflective participants. A further 20% of the time interacting with experienced colleagues often fails. Not due to a lack of skill or will, but because the senior team doesn’t model the way, so the culture isn’t open or trusting enough to deliver any benefit. Without trust and openness, participants won’t believe that they will be treated confidentially and therefore are less likely to be honest, which defeats the purpose of coaching. The final 10%, the idea that one-tenth of L&D comes from external courses, isn’t guaranteed to work. We regularly see coaches and facilitators doing fantastic work that delivers change. But it won’t stick if the culture doesn’t support those changes. This exacerbates the view that L&D is ineffective.

How to generate lasting behavioural change

We’ve examined the challenges that L&D professionals face, and some of the reasons why programmes fall short of expectations. To have the best effect, a programme that incorporates the following three elements enhances the return on investment significantly.

  • Consciousness
    Improved awareness of behaviours, attitudes and relations equals greater choice over behaviours. L&D personnel need to create an experience that helps leaders understand why they behave the way they do, through exploring i) personality and values, ii) beliefs, iii) bias and emotional intelligence. Openness, prompted by a programme that probes behaviour is needed, rather than centring on a learning model, which is passive. Experienced coaches facilitate this best – it’s not always a comfortable process, but it needs to be uncomfortable for leaders to change – and see the reason to change.
  • Reflective experience
    Development framework is much more important than the content itself. The focus must be on how people learn, not what they learn. At least 50% of the programme time needs to be reflective. ROI is derived from leaders having a realisation that they stop and then think about. Again, experienced facilitators capable of honouring that reflective space while people process what they need to is the ideal scenario.
  • Place
    Medicine, neuroscience, environmental psychology, architectural design – all of these fields recognise how place impacts on learning. So why doesn’t L&D? Pay attention to the physical environment, psychological environment and anchoring learning. Walking and coaching combine the physical and the metaphorical development journey. The venues for the learning should permit a disconnection from distractions – so leaders can focus, attend to, and be present with the experience and their learning.

Push leaders out of their comfort zone to secure ROI

For knowledgeable, accomplished senior leaders, focusing on a programme’s learning element is a waste of time. Senior leaders already have vast experience and practical know-how. A classroom experience is likely to be perceived as teaching them what they already know. Giving them an experience that permits them to realise something about themselves, and providing the space and time to reflect on how they operate is much more likely to instigate change – and correlate to a significant ROI.

Our whitepaper looks in detail at the challenges faced by L&D professionals, how they can avoid a poor ROI and deliver meaningful change. Download the paper and read at your leisure; or, if there’s a pressing issue, give us a call now on 0117 370 1800. We’d be pleased to have the opportunity of a conversation.

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