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Do leadership development programs deliver what they promise? Well, it depends …

Demand for leadership development programs is high—but companies may have their own goals when pursuing them

Pisitta Vongswasdi - April 22, 2024

Tips for practitioners

For today’s companies, developing the managerial skills of their employees can be a costly endeavor. So, it’s no surprise that more and more are investing in leadership development programs (LDPs). But most of these companies don’t look to see whether their LDPs are having the desired effect within their organization. And that begs the question whether the initial investment was even worth it. A new study from researchers at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and other institutions shows that LDPs are often much more than a mere path toward their managers’ professional development.

The researchers asked 40 managers active at eight different European companies how they would justify a company’s investment in an LDP. From their responses, two things have been made clear: that there are four distinct perspectives people may have of these programs; and that the programs in question have a positive effect at the office that extends beyond the leadership qualities of those in charge. And these results are surprising, as the companies surveyed had not sufficiently evaluated the programs based on how well they met the intended goal of advancing one’s managerial ability. What are these four distinct perspectives that managers could assume when it comes to LDPs?

The Empiricist Perspective

Many organizations assume a purely empiricist perspective when reviewing LDPs, i.e., they will consider the program useful if they can prove that the behavior exhibited by their managers has tangibly changed. From their point of view, the program’s success is highly dependent on how closely supervisors support their managers—and on the degree to which the program has been integrated into daily work life. Here, the LDP has an effect both on the managers’ behavior and their performance at work.

The Believer Perspective

Other companies offer such programs because they are convinced that they will build character and have far-reaching effects on the participants outside of their managerial duties. That is, there is the belief that the program will make them better people. Companies that assume this perspective consider it their duty to offer their employees such opportunities for self-development.

The Cynical Perspective

Those that take the cynical perspective will generally view LDPs with skepticism. Rather than seeing these programs as opportunities for development, they reduce them to superficial branding tools, a trend, little more than a way for the company to appear as a good employer to the outside world. The programs are seen as a step on one’s way up the corporate ladder, something that must be offered but is, at its core, dispensable.

The Pragmatic Perspective

A company that assumes a more pragmatic perspective judges a program through a strategic lens. It will consider whether the program will add value to its organization and align with its strategic goals. As such, the purpose of these programs affects more than the company’s managers. From the company’s point of view, the programs have the task of ensuring harmony between its own values and those of its employees, promoting an exchange of ideas within the organization, and ensuring the next generation of managers.

These four perspectives show that LDPs fulfill no singular purpose on their own and that it is important to consider various criteria when evaluating their effect and developing (i.e., improving) them. Each of these perspectives has its own advantage: With its scientific approach, the empiricist perspective allows one to easily refine an LDP, as it reveals pain points for practical improvement and holds upper management accountable. Where there is a belief in the promise of these programs, there is often stronger commitment among the participants and more impetus to start new initiatives. The programs themselves also tend to be more effective in such environments. Those who assume a more cynical perspective are motivated by reform, as they are already looking at existing managerial standards through a critical lens. And the pragmatist maintains a strategic overview that pulls LDP-related activities into an integrated organizational system.

Tips for practitioners

  • To determine which of the four perspectives are prevalent in the company, those in charge of leadership development should identify the prevailing attitudes and beliefs about the program already present at the organization. This will lead to better conclusions regarding the company’s true intentions.
  • Make use of the diagnostic check list, drafted based upon the results of this study. It contains explanations of each of the four perspectives mentioned above and can be used to better understand the attitudes toward managerial development at your company, both individually and collectively.

Literature reference

- Vongswasdi, P./Leroy, H./Claeys, J./Anisman-Razin, M./van Dierendonck, D. (2023): Beyond Developing Leaders: Toward a Multinarrative Understanding of the Value of Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, (ja), amle-2021. doi-org.eur.idm.oclc.org/10.5465/amle.2021.0231 

Co-author of the study

Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi

Pisitta Vongswasdi is an Assistant Professor at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. Her research and teaching interests focus on of leadership development, diversity management, and mindfulness in today’s organizations.

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