Does ROI come during or after leadership development?

For all I rail against ROI and the measurements we provide as internal L&Ders, I’m not immune to it. I still have to report back to the board what the outputs are from internal initiatives and solutions I provide. I still have to report back about bums on seats, number of learning sessions, number of hours invested, costs, and whatever else.

I am part of the machine, as much I am trying to adapt the machine.

I’m in the midst of developing our senior management development programme. It’s going to be awesome. I’m swallowing my own medicine. Like the hype I’m building around it? In truth, I thoroughly enjoyed the delivery of our management development programme to our front line managers, as I wrote about last week.

So what’s different here?

Firstly, there’s a smaller group. That helps a lot as it means less large scale co-ordination and more room for personalised agendas. I’m totally flowing with that as a thing and we’re arranging that the programme will be flexible enough to fit around people’s diaries where possible, instead of mandated course dates.

The bit I’m particularly interested to watch unfold is the take up of content. We will have some core modules, which most people will be asked to attend. We are also providing a range of 7 optional modules, and suggesting that people select a minimum of two, with the option of attending all if that fits with their development needs.

Now, one of the pieces which I’m still grappling with is the inclusion of a project as a method of collaboration and delivery of organisational objectives.

In a discussion with one of the directors, we were talking about how we would know if a programme like this were successful at all. What would we actually notice/observe/feel?

We discussed the usual suspects. Better decision making. Improved engagement of teams. Yada yada yada. We got onto the bit about the projects, and the impact of the projects, and this was where things got interesting.

It was suggested that it probably makes more sense that the project happens after the development is done, as this would be a directly correlatable (totally a word I just made up) to the programme. This made me stop and think quite carefully about what that means. I’m sure we’re not the first to have thought an approach like this might work, and I know I’ve tried to do the project thing in mid-programme previously. So, the question is, is that correlation possible?

As with most things in life, the answer is, possibly.

What I don’t have the luxury of is a control group to make that assertion with confidence. I am not of the mind that I don’t want to put a group through development, give them the same projects, and then evaluate the solutions to see who produced better results. Although quasi-scientific, it’s not fair, and certainly morally very shaky.

I am intrigued by the face value of it though. By developing the skills, knowledge and attitude of our senior managers, we are equipping them to be their best self at work. Once the programme is complete, they then are given a project to work on collaboratively, with clear parameters and brief, and expected to deliver a solution as part of the project. What that solution looks like, and the delivery of it, would be a reflection on the development programme.

So there’s a level of pressure I wasn’t expecting to be attached to the programme!

What do you think?


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Does ROI come during or after leadership development?”

  1. Now then Sukh, some interesting questions in there. I’ve picked out a few and summarised my thoughts below:

    During or after? I think it actually starts before, happens during and really shows itself after. Starts before by mapping out, what are the two or three behaviours that these leaders are going to learn how to display, every day, that will give them the chance to create the change and deliver the outcomes that are desired. Then, work out how you are going to support, encourage, monitor and reward leaders to do these behaviours. Finally, (and this is where some guesswork creeps in and that is ok) if we hold the assumption that a leader does these behaviours and all the support etc is in place, what will happen and how will we know if it is happening? For this we need to start early. For example, one of the leading indicators I am creating for the evaluation strategy I’m building is that we will see a spike in people contacting either asking for help or moaning about the fact they need to somehow record their CPD. Then, after the learning has happened, we look and see if the stuff we expected to has actually happened and ask ‘if so why’ or ‘if not why not’ and then ‘what changes if any do we need to make to help that behaviour happen’ (and by the way more training isn’t the change).

    Project or not? It is impossible to isolate the value of learning as there are too many other variables at play unless (as you say) you get a control group etc. Projects give us a sense that we can make an easier link as without the programme there wouldn’t be the projects happening. I see the project as something that is being put in place to both support and monitor the application of the learning (see point above). Should you do the project before or after? Positives and risks of both.

    Is the pressure helpful? It depends on how you position it. Too much and you risk triggering fear as people will see it as a threat to their welfare if they screw it up. Too little and it doesn’t matter so becomes less important as no one cares any way. Me, I’d put the pressure on what we are really interested in from the projects is their learning journey and the success of the projects will come from the application of their learning. The pressure is on something they have direct control over and the results will come too.

    Hope that helps and nice post.


  2. First of all, good luck with the programme. I have experience both of being a participant on leadership programme that included a project, and of research for a dissertation on leadership development, with very senior leaders, many of whom described significant learning from projects. My own experience was not so positive.
    This was because I was on a programme designed for a diverse group of participants from many linked organizations, who got into groups to do projects together as part of the programme. Some of these were very successful, but others like mine felt artificial. I never really had a sense of ownership or enthusiasm for the project I was involved with. I have to accept some personal responsibility for that but I think it was partly due to an over ambitious and complicated programme design where insufficient time was given at the start to project group selection and suitability.
    On the positive side, most of the very senior leaders I interviewed a few years ago for qualitative free flowing accounts of how they had become leaders, talked enthusiastically about being part of significant projects early on or at significant stages of their careers. This could have been as big as being involved in the building of a new hospital or leading process improvement. They had gained loads of experiential learning from these projects, often coupled with support from a developmental manager. However this was not planned learning…
    So I guess your challenge is to incorporate meaningful projects with planned learning plus the flexibility for the wealth of experiential learning that will undoubtedly follow to be captured and developed. Really look forward to hearing about progress in a future blog.

  3. I think the evaluation is a key intervention in itself. That’s a whole other blog.

    At inception, the first question is why? Maybe the “why” is that training managers is as basic as training people how to use their email and we don’t need to prove it. Or, we may know we want to achieve more, fill up some deficit, increase our ability to retain people. Then, when you explore detail of what better would look like. For eg, if a director wants “better” decision making, unless he/she is able to describe and detail what that looks like, you will not be able to tailor and design work to target that.

    The why can inform where you start with the exploration; the evaluation can inform how you shape and develop, and don’t forget to involve your most important stakeholders in the whole process (design, evaluation, etc) – the participants and their teams.

    The ROI is straightforward at this point. My point is that it is the job of the sponsors of the programme to identify the ROI they expect, with expert facilitation from others.

    I see I have moved away from your question; work with the participants on this, the more they design, initiate, create, etc the more they will learn. I go down the route of they take ownership of something rather than be given something.

  4. How they do in the projects can’t be directly attributed to your programme. You remind me of the eternal debate in marketing – how much of it actually contributes to people changing behaviour and buying – and in some cases e.g. Brand building – that’s not its job. What’s the job of this programme? Specifically? Three things. Can the projects demonstrate learning on those three things? We do lots of ‘live’ work on e.g. marketing briefs in our learning. I have gone on to track the effectiveness of the campaigns that have come out of the back of that. But it’s only ever a correlation.

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