5 Reasons Executive Development Programs Fail

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Executive and leadership development has risen to the top of most companies’ priority list over the past decade, with the realization that in the fast-changing, innovation-led business landscape organizations must have exceptional leaders to navigate it. In fact, when upward of 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human capital priorities, leadership development was included as both a current and future priority, and almost two-thirds identified leadership development as their number one concern.1 This explains why U.S. companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development.2

However, for many organizations, the outcomes of their leadership development are lackluster and fail to meet the ideal return-on-investment for such programs. The failure to meet expectations of executive development programs can be attributed, in part, to four common mistakes that derail their efforts.



  1. Too narrowly focused. As stated, today’s business landscape is complex, fast-changing, and dynamic. That means executive development programs need to take into account a leaders’ ability to recognize, and adapt to, changing environments and economic swings. If an organization is developing leaders based on one situation – say a high-growth period – and fail to assess those leaders’ ability to change and adapt in an economic downturn, the program will fail to produce an effective leader. Developing an executive should take into account technical skillsets, behavioral intelligence and critical thinking competencies, and not doing so will yield one dimensional leaders.
  1. One-size-fits-all mentality. Many executive development initiatives are based on the assumption that one size will fit all, and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is suitable for all executives. Yet, departmental culture and team dynamics are hardly identical, and successful development programs take these aspects and the individual leader into account. Bottom line, there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style. 
  1. Based on the theoretical. Leadership development programs fail when they don’t tie the program to real on-the-job initiatives that put into practice the areas of identified weaknesses. When programs are based on the theoretical, they run the risk of creating theorists and leaders. Executive development should not only uncover areas of competency gaps, but should identify opportunities where participants can develop these skills through real world experiences. Successful development programs help accelerate leadership skills, otherwise they simply turn into expensive training methods.
  1. Afraid to rock the boat. One of the obvious goals of leadership development is to change behavior in order to become a more effective executive. This, of course, means adjusting underlying mindsets, behaviors and critical thinking competencies. Yet, too often organizations find the assessment of weaknesses in these areas uncomfortable, for participants as well as their bosses. Although we know that without discomfort, change can’t truly occur, effective executive development programs help alleviate this aspect by taking a more objective, data-based approach. When the assessment of leaders is based on science-based, objective feedback, participants and their bosses are able to remove much of the discomfort from the process.


Building Best-in-Class Executive Development Programs

It’s important to delineate the way leading-edge organizations are approaching leadership development today, a vastly different methodology that has evolved alongside the business landscape. Namely, the best-in-class leadership development programs of today are a continuous process of aligning executives’ goals to the business, setting clear expectations, linking assessment and performance data to inform development, and objectively measuring and evaluating both current and future performance.  

For example, XBInsight’s Executive Development Assessments provide critical insight into the competencies, behaviors, values and thinking styles of the executive, based on metrics and competencies that are critical to a given position. In addition, the development report offers a comprehensive overview of the strengths and development opportunities based on objective, science-backed data. This powerful tool provides a tangible, actionable plan for developing the specific areas of growth and potential for company executives and leaders.

Many organizations continue to struggle with weak or bureaucratic approaches to executive development, but there are leading strategies that can turn the promise of leadership talent into tangible results for every organization. To learn more about how to optimize executive leadership programs, contact XBInsight via this form, at info@xbinsight.com, or by calling 401-682-2859 x 102.



1 The State of Human Capital  – False Summit: Why the Human Capital Function Still Has Far to Go, a joint report from The Conference Board and McKinsey.

2 Laci Loew and Karen O’Leanard, Leadership Development Factbook; Benchmarks and Trends in U.S. Leadership Development, Bersin by Deloitte.