Matt-DriscollWhen it comes to L&D, there seems to be a big focus this year on the development of leadership talent. 61% of L&D influencers and decision makers we surveyed earlier in 2014 cited management and leadership as their top priority. Another major talent management organisation undertook recent research that found only 14% of organisations have confidence in their leadership talent pipeline to be able to meet their needs. It is fairly easy to see, then, why many firms are turning their L&D focus to the top.

Developing leaders poses a number of unique challenges, however. It is an area in which many organisations – with all the best intentions – often fall down on. The variety of different types of leaders is vast, and each individual leader is a complex person in his or her own right. It is important to understand what the common challenges are, why they exist, and how you can overcome them.

1. Distinguishing between managers and leaders

You often hear people talk about managers and leaders interchangeably. Both – when competent – are of great value to the organisations they work for. But while there are obvious similarities between the two roles, there are also some key characteristics that firmly distinguish them. Management is more about implementation and control. Yes, managers may be responsible for people, but their role revolves more around making sure their teams are able to complete their jobs and achieve their goals. Leaders, on the other hand, are responsible for inspiring and innovating, and coming up with the ideas that will drive the business forward. In short: leaders create the vision; managers, through people, make it happen.

If you are trying to develop leadership capabilities within your own organisation, it is important to understand these differences. Firstly – because you want to ensure that any learning intervention is properly structured and targeted to develop the right behaviours and skillsets. Secondly – because you want to target the right people within your organisation, i.e. those who are leaders, not managers. If you don’t target the right learning at the right people, then your intervention could be doomed from the start.

2. Achieving context

When it comes to L&D, one size definitely does not fit all. If you assume that all leaders – regardless of individual context – will benefit from the same type of development, then you will almost certainly be disappointed with the outcome. There may well be a set of common traits that successful leaders have, but simply taking that entire list and applying it to somebody isn’t going to work. Instead, take the person as the individual they are. Look at their existing skills, and then work out the specific competencies which would better enable them to meet the objectives that matter to your business.

If, for example, your business is going through a period of significant change, then your investment would be best placed developing the competencies in your leaders which would enable them to effectively lead people through that change. If, on the other hand, a lack of motivation among staff is an issue, then the ability to inspire and persuade would be good leadership traits to develop. Not all leadership skills are going to be relevant for your culture, your business, and its specific situation. Pinpoint the ones that are, and then do whatever it takes to create them in abundance.

3. Connecting the learning to their day job

When you are dealing with people at the height of their careers, in strategic leadership positions, it is not enough to simply deliver theory and expect it to have a significant impact on performance. The learning needs to be fully tied in with the learner’s working role, and personalised in a way that will enable them to go back to work and immediately be more productive or effective, or exhibit a change in behaviour, as a direct result of that intervention.

One way to achieve this could be through peer coaching – enabling leaders to talk through real business problems with each other and get practical advice on how to solve them. You could also work with the leaders to build a specific set of actions around their day-to-day tasks and objectives, or any important upcoming projects that will enable them to better achieve those objectives or lead those projects to completion. This is a much more practical and relevant alternative to simply demonstrating methodology through case studies.

Whatever you do, you must create an environment in which the leaders take responsibility for their own development. You can facilitate the link between the learning and their job, but they need to make that connection themselves.

4. Adapting to learning styles

The level at which you are delivering learning doesn’t matter – people have varying learning styles, and the L&D you implement needs to properly reflect those individual differences. When you are dealing with senior leaders who have, more often than not, been working and learning for many years, their individual learning style is even more likely to be steadfastly embedded.

This really ties in once again with moving away from the ‘one size fits all’ mentality – something which is more important than ever for successful L&D delivery, when the return on investment, or return on expectation, of learning activity is being carefully, and increasingly, measured. If you don’t adapt to the learning styles of the leaders you are trying to develop, you reduce the chance of having an impact.

5. Measuring impact

If you are not measuring the effect that your leadership development is having, how do you know your time and money is being well spent? Similarly, how can you expect to hone any intervention for maximum impact if you have no idea whether it is already working or not?

Measuring the impact of any L&D intervention can be challenging. Regardless of the tools or processes you use to measure it, though, leadership development should begin by looking at where the leader is in relation to the level of skill and knowledge required to lead within your organisation, and where they need to be. Then, you can track progress before, during, and after the learning to ensure that the intervention is on target to meet that need.


These are just some of the more common challenges faced when developing leaders. But every business is different, and every leader is a unique individual, so the challenges you come up against in your organisation may differ slightly. We would be really interested to hear about your own unique experiences in developing leaders, any challenges you faced, and how you overcame them.

Matt Driscoll is a management and leadership L&D consultant at Thales Learning & Development. With over 13 years’ experience in the L&D field, in a wide range of industries and organisations, including BUPA and AXA Assistance, Matt specialises in helping people develop their untapped potential through coaching and learning interventions.