Many management and leadership development programmes take great satisfaction in the positive responses received from individual participants on the “smiley” sheets they hand out at the end of their course. And for the most part these programmes do make a good impression on that manager or leader who leaves the programme feeling full of great ideas about how they will change themselves and their organisations.

But what usually happens is that this “changed” person returns to an “unchanged” organisation – and is quickly disheartened and discouraged from trying to effect change or from trying to use their new skills and knowledge.

The positive energy the newly minted learner was so eager to pass on to his company is consigned to the bin and the impact and purpose of their expensive training is, for the most part, lost – along with the employer’s investment.

Why? Far too often, the learner is disconnected from the natural context of his or her learning, namely the workplace. Although some have been saying this for years, for the most part, leadership and management development programmes have not yet heeded this counsel. The traditional reliance on the case method of teaching has cut the schools off from their clients. Companies have also used executive programmes as a reward for their managers, rather than as a legitimate learning tool. The business school takes the money, the company ticks the training box and the status quo continues.

However, there are ways to diffuse the learning back into the organisation and help returning managers and leaders drive real change in their organisation as a result of what they learn. This can be encouraged in two ways; through ‘teaching impact’ – where participants act as teachers on the job and diffuse the learning to their colleagues at work and through ‘action impact’ – where participants drive changes in their organisations as a result of the concepts and experiences they had on the development programme.

A concept of “using work” not “making work” is something that more executive programmes should adopt – they should develop their own cases instead of using Harvard’s. In that way real problems would be solved and real issues addressed. Not only should participants learn in the class and discuss different frameworks that could be implemented in the workplace – they should also be able to gain valuable lessons from taking action within their organisation and the challenges faced therein.

The only way for business students to positively impact on their own development and that of their organisation is if they have the opportunity to learn whilst effecting the changes within their teams and organisations. For those organisations sending managers to executive programmes it would be prudent to consider what impact or returns could be realised if these programmes focused on participants and the issues they faced and helping these same managers bring the learning back into their organisations.

If changes do not occur at those companies that are sending managers to programmes and also at the business schools that are delivering them, there will continue to be disappointed participants and company money will continue to be wasted.

The problem of changing the management mindset needs to be tackled, both from the company point of view and from the business school perspective. Companies should not be satisfied with a programme unless their employee participants return and add demonstrable added value as a result.

This does not mean turning everything on its head however. The first step needs to be tackling the chief executive and helping him or her to realise what executive training has the potential to do for their organisation and have them support their employees in this process. It is only then that more training programmes for executives will be able to bring about real and positive change.

The author is managing director of the IMPM (International Masters in Practicing Management) at The Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.

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