The State of Leadership Development: Closing the Gap Between L&D and the Rest of the Business

07/26/2016 04:55 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2017

Given the complexities of today's environment, businesses recognize that the only way to stay on top is to have leaders in place at all levels - leaders who fully understand and embrace their organization's strategic objectives, and who have the skills and personal capabilities to help meet those objectives. For more than 25 years, Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning has been providing leadership development solutions that help our clients ensure they are able to cultivate and nurture the leaders they need. Day in, day out, the companies we partner with put leadership development at the forefront of their worlds. But what actions are L&D teams really taking to develop their leaders? And more importantly, are those actions in line with what the rest of the business thinks it needs to move the needle? To find out, we recently surveyed managers from companies around the globe. Our respondents were a near-even mix of business line managers and learning and development (L&D) professionals, primarily in companies with more than 10,000 employees. What they told us didn't fully surprise us, but the findings underscore some of the biggest challenges facing L&D teams - and what they need to do to change them.

Only 7 percent of those surveyed rated their leadership development initiatives as "best in class" programs that are excellent across the board, with little to improve. What makes for "best in class"? A program that tightly aligns with strategy, enjoys executive support, has cultivated a strong talent pipeline, and demonstrates an impact on overall success. For "best in class" programs, leadership development is a strategic priority. On the other end of the spectrum, the majority of those classifying their programs as "underperforming" indicated that their L&D efforts were something that their organization undertook just to be able to check off a box.

One finding that came as no surprise to those of us in the L&D trenches, the top barrier (overwhelmingly so) standing in the way of program improvement is time. In today's hyper-competitive and fast-moving environment, when employees are stretched in some many directions and time is at a premium, removing senior and new leaders from their every day tasks to focus on learning is a real challenge. That reality applies even to those with successful L&D programs.

Where this survey really shined a light , however, was on the discontent between L&D and business managers when it comes to program relevance and effectiveness. While most of the L&D clients we work with are likely to tell you that there is definitely a gap that needs to be bridged between their teams and the rest of the business, it's the size of the gap that is both surprising and alarming. L&D professionals are 110 percent more likely to say that leadership development programs have a high degree of relevance to the issues facing the business, while only 32% of business managers believe L&D programs have made them or their teams more effective. There's agreement on both sides that the capabilities needed to do that are demonstrating integrity (77 percent), managing complexity (75 percent), inspiring engagement (70 percent) and acting strategically (70 percent), but the business side is far less confident that leadership development programs are actually developing these capabilities in leaders - 11 percent less effective than L&D believes in the case of demonstrating integrity, for example.

This perception gap is a wake up call for both L&D and the business side of the house. L&D needs to pay closer attention to aligning their programs with the needs of the business, to gaining the support of senior leadership, and to finding innovative ways to make learning more relevant. But it's not all gloom and doom, as it's easy to interpret from these results. The proof is in the most valuable piece of data we found from the "best in class" group: "best in class" was 94 percent more likely to say that their leadership development programs had an impact on their company's financial success. That's tangible proof that leadership development programs, when done well, can drive business forward. So business leaders, who are looking for ways to combat complexity, need to become more engaged in the process and provide the support and teamwork L&D needs to craft successful L&D programs that align with the business and have a bottom line impact

To make sure that an organization is making the most of their leadership development initiatives, L&D needs to involve company leadership from the outset, using them to help devise content that connects to their strategy, and employing a leader-as-teacher approach to get and keep company leaders involved. Virtual learning programs are a proven way to help relieve the time constraints that so many are under. Such programs, which use state-of-the-art technology to engage learners, make it easier for employees to incorporate learning into their day-to-day routine without it placing an additional time burden on them. It's also imperative that L&D to develop more effective ways to measure each program's impact on their organization. Measuring impact is always tricky, but with only 32% of business managers recognizing L&D effectiveness, it's essential to moving the program needle from "underperforming" to "best in class."