A key factor in effective leadership development programs is the conversation that leaders have with their bosses and co-workers about what and how they need to improve. These conversations work best when they happen both before and after the training event, whether that’s classroom-based, online, executive coaching, or any other kind of structured learning experience. It’s the feedback and reflection that comes from conversations around leadership improvement issues that drives change in the leader.

Marshall Goldsmith says that leaders today need “learning agility”. He defines this as the ability to continually learn from others. He argues that leaders in the future cannot possibly know all that they need to know – either about themselves or the business. They need to get that information through interaction with others. Goldsmith quotes Peter Drucker: “The leader of the past knew how to tell—the leader of the future will know how to ask.”

Goldsmith and Harry Morgan in an article titled, Leadership is a Contact Sport, report on a study of leadership development practices in eight major corporations involving 11,480 managers. They conclude:

Time and again, one variable emerged as central to the achievement of positive long-term change: the participants’ ongoing interaction and follow-up with colleagues. Leaders who discussed their own improvement priorities with their co-workers, and then regularly followed up with these co-workers, showed striking improvement. Leaders who did not have ongoing dialogue with colleagues showed improvement that barely exceeded random chance.

Clearly, learning-focused conversations between learner and co-workers (and boss) makes the difference. I have found the same results in my evaluation of the impact of leadership development programs in a wide variety of organizations. However, most organizations continue to invest millions in training events and next to nothing in the preparation and followup that should accompany all leadership development programs.

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