How to Help Leaders Learn

The biggest barrier to successful leadership-development programs, according to Brandon Hall Group research, is that leaders don’t have enough time to learn.

Top Impediments to Successful Leadership Development

Think about that statement for a minute. There are many systemic barriers to strong leadership development, as the data above reflects. But the biggest impediment is that leaders appear to have more important things to do than learn! Nothing could be further from the truth. If leaders don’t have time to learn, how will things improve?

The problem stems from how corporate learning in general, and leadership development in particular, evolved over the years. LD has been structured to take leaders away from their jobs and put them in classrooms for hours, days or weeks. Then, there is scant reinforcement of what was learned in those classes, so the leaders forget most of it, which results in little change. Even worse, the leaders come to believe that learning takes them away from their work, rather than being part of their jobs.

Two-thirds of organizations say they can’t prove that their leadership development programs have significantly impacted their ability to meet their business objectives, according to Brandon Hall Group research.

This has led employers to prioritize several strategies to improve the business impact of LD, as this illustrates:

Those are all fine ideas, but they don’t get to the biggest problem: despite all the investment, leaders don’t believe they have time to learn.

• How do we change the mindset that developing leadership skills is not a leader’s responsibility?

• How do we motivate leaders to invest in their own development?

There is much that organizations can do to improve leadership development. But our research shows that it starts by giving leaders the freedom to do something for themselves: learn. Here are three strategies to help leaders improve their skills:

Empower Leaders to Take More Time for Reflection and Self-Development

We asked organizations to tell us what they would do if they could change one thing about their LD program. The answer: Give them time to learn.

Leaders at all levels — from the C-Suite to the front lines — are under so much pressure to manage their teams and drive business results, they don’t feel they can take time to help themselves, even though most know they have plenty to improve upon. Organizations need to send two messages to all leaders:

• Improving your leadership skills is part of your job.

• You should take time to reflect and to learn new ways of thinking and leading.

Provide Opportunities for Leaders to Practice New Skills in a Safe Environment

Improving leadership capabilities requires behavior change. This does not occur by taking a class and quickly implementing what was learned. New skills often require unlearning one set of behaviors before replacing them with new ones. That takes practice, ideally in a safe environment where mistakes lack real-world consequences. Trial and error is a big part of learning, so we need to enable it.

Scenario-based practice — either live or online — is a great way to learn to shift behaviors and get feedback and advice from peers and experts. There are also ample virtual exercises that can be served up through apps or an LMS. Many take just a few minutes and leaders can do them within the flow of work. That makes learning part of their job and not something they don’t have time for.

Engage Coaches and Mentors

Leaders at all levels are increasingly asked to coach their employees and be mentors or sponsors for aspiring leaders. But leaders need coaching and mentoring, too, and many organizations do not provide that. Especially at the higher levels of leadership, this often requires significant investment for external coaches or mentors. But organizations are spending gobs of money on LD anyway, often with little impact. Organizations should reprioritize helping leaders become the best they can be. They need the same kind of personalized attention and support you expect them to provide to team members and others.


Brandon Hall Group Strategy Briefs answer the critical questions learning, talent, HR and business leaders must address to manage their human capital. To tackle these critical questions in more detail, we built tools, frameworks, research summaries and business builders based on up-to-date research and case studies for you to implement best and next Human Capital Management (HCM) practices. To gain access to these valuable resources, contact [email protected].

Leading minds in HCM choose Brandon Hall Group to help them build future-proof employee-development plans for the new era. For more than 27 years, we have empowered, recognized and certified excellence in organizations around the world, influencing the development of over 10,000,000 associates and executives.

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.