Why leadership training must be done on the job

Ever wonder why you can't recall high school math algorithms despite good grades?

Unless you work with it in your career now (in which case hopefully you didn’t forget), you can blame the skills transfer gap.

We’ll get back to that. But first, another tidbit for you: Did you know that companies in the US spend around $14 billion each year on leadership development?

And according to research from McKinsey, about two-thirds of business executives say leadership development is their “number-one concern”.

Obviously, it’s a big deal. And yet, despite everyone claiming they care so much about leadership development – and putting big bucks behind it – bad leaders are still all over the place.

More than half of senior leaders believe their leadership development programs aren’t working well – and they seem to be right, because nearly 7 of 10 employees would rather have a new manager than a raise! So what on earth are we doing wrong?

There are of course multiple answers to that question – but there’s one which is perhaps the biggest of all:

We’re not teaching leadership on the job. And when you don’t teach, and practice, on the job, you don’t get results on the job.

The traditional format for leadership training programs are event-based, taking place in an intensive workshop – perhaps over the course of a few hours or (hopefully) days. Leaders might attend and feel totally inspired and empowered…and yet, a few weeks or months later, it’s hard to see any impact.

It’s the same thing that happened with all the knowledge you gained from math class. If it’s not used on the job, in a real-life context, skills get rusty quickly.

This is what we call the Skills Transfer Gap. Basically, it’s the concept that “the distance between where a skill is learned and where it is applied greatly influences the probability that a student will put that skill into practice”.

Note that by distance, we don’t just mean physical distance. We’re also talking “distance” in time (so not waiting days or weeks to implement what you’ve learned), and even the “distance” of different social or emotional contexts.

The learning environment should be as close as it possibly can be, in all of these ways, to the environment where the skills will actually be used.

Think about it this way: A typical adult retains only about 10% of what they learn in a classroom setting – but they remember about two-thirds of what they do.

So if you want someone to apply leadership skills on the job, you have to make the Skills Transfer Gap – the distance from classroom to work environment – as small as possible.

Or, you know, you could just make it actually the same place. Like, learn on the job. Ground-breaking, right?

When it comes to leadership, the takeaway is clear: to learn leadership, you must do leadership – in your daily environment.

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