“The truth is, I don’t really care about learning.”

That’s a quote from a frustrated CEO explaining his expectations for a planned leadership development program. “I care about the business,” he added.

This is a position many business leaders take but don’t always communicate. Corporate learning programs have become so omnipresent that it has become a foregone conclusion that they are good — almost unassailably so. But good for what? This CEO couldn’t settle for learning for its own sake. He needed to turn the business around.

Sure, learning is virtuous. It builds perspective and insight. But that’s not enough. For learning to pay off for the culture and more importantly the business, it must become growth. Growth happens when learning is incorporated into new approaches and sustained on the job. Only then does the business benefit from learning.

Sadly many organizations design for learning alone and fail to see the leadership growth their businesses need.

Growth, Not Just Learning

Putting your leaders in a classroom, in front of a screen or across from a coach to learn key leadership concepts can check off some boxes on an individual’s development plan. It can demonstrate your organization’s interest in growing leaders. And when delivered by skilled coaches and facilitators or in an engaging digital format, it can even provide some short-term change in leader behaviors.

But does that learning provide sustained change and real application on the job, where competing priorities and the crush of the workday can quickly turn today’s learning into tomorrow’s old news?

Most of the time the answer is a resounding no. According to research conducted by Development Dimensions International, an HR consulting firm that is the author’s employer, and The Conference Board, leaders are only able to apply 54 percent of what they’ve learned in leadership development activities back on the job. If they aren’t applying what they’ve learned there is no long-term benefit to the leader or the organization.

CLOs need to reframe their approach so leaders aren’t just learning. Help them grow by applying what they’ve learned in the context of the challenges the organization is facing. Getting leaders from “not ready” to “ready right now” requires giving them the opportunity to grow with the right tools, the right support and the right business reason for change.

You can make some generalizations about the needs of leaders based on leadership level or generational markers. First-time leaders often benefit from more standardized solutions. Mid and senior-level leaders require more specialized approaches. Younger leaders may be more comfortable with mobile options. Leaders in China may prefer more structure.

These broad approaches quickly break down in practice because generalized development isn’t enough. Each business has specific needs for leadership and it’s unlikely that leaders will deliver on those needs if programs aren’t designed to make it happen.

So how can CLOs ensure investments grow leaders across cultures, levels, generations and skill levels in a way that directly benefits the business?

Principles of Leadership Learning That Lead to Growth

According to a meta-analysis of 186 research studies spanning more than 40 years, 18,000 leaders and 12,000 observers of their job performance, there are eight fundamentals of leadership learning that have been found to lead to growth.

These principles are universal and proven to work across cultures, leader levels and generations. Building these into a leadership growth program leads to positive impact on speed, retention and application of learning to your most pressing business issues.

  1. Don’t skimp on assessment. Giving leaders a clear picture of their strengths, weaknesses and development priorities puts them on the fast-track to growth. Measuring a complete success profile is critical but selecting assessments that drill down to the more granular, key action level gives leaders actionable insight into the specific areas that will help them focus their learning, then apply it to their most critical challenges.
  2. Design processes for practicing skills, not just learning them. Skill practicing boosts capability to apply learning back on the job. Building in opportunities to practice skills with coaches, peers or facilitators allows leaders to try on new skills in a safe, feedback-rich environment, giving them the confidence to take what they’ve learned and use it effectively in real-world situations. The goal isn’t perfection. Rather, the aim is to build enough capability to practice and hone the skill over time.
  3. Create a powerful “why.” If leaders don’t see a direct link between what they are learning and their everyday reality, growth will stall. They’ll need to see the purpose of development as it relates to their success on the job and the success of business. Change can be hard and few leaders will sustain changes without a good reason. A “big why,” such as business survival for example, can generate energy and motivation for growth.
  4. Create opportunities for learners to observe models. Application starts with learning by observing. The most powerful skill-acquisition processes factor in opportunities to watch someone else do it well. Whether through the classroom, videos or by partnership with an expert, positive models work in the same way a picture paints a thousand words. One positive model can demonstrate a range of positive behaviors and quickly turn acquisition into application.
  5. Regard manager support as vital. The role of the manager in transforming learning into growth can’t be overstated. As a trusted coach, champion and feedback provider, the learner’s manager helps build an environment in which barriers to application of learning are removed. Ensuring that both the leader and manager understand the “whys” and the “whats” of development allows for open communication and an aligned approach to growth.
  6. Trade up processes for learning accelerators. Leveraging technology to connect leaders to their peers and offering access to reinforcement tools and content accelerates growth by building a community of learning and providing opportunities to share insight. Learning accelerators like mobile apps and social networking tools extend the learning beyond the classroom, keeping the learning process vibrant and learners connected.
  7. Avoid being misled by the 70-20-10 model. Many organizations, in a rush to embrace technology, de-emphasize the critical 10 percent of formal learning in the 70-20-10 model. Yet research shows that in organizations where development has the greatest impact, often much more than 10 percent of time is spent on formal learning (see Figure 1). Don’t skimp on or skip formal learning as it provides learners with the powerful mix of skill practice, feedback and networking, which can’t be replicated consistently in informal or on-the-job settings.
  8. Commit to complete learning pathways. Large scale leadership gaps can’t be quickly closed if you try to grow one leader at a time. That’s where the learning journey — a sequential, integrated development approach that enables a group of leaders to learn and grow together — comes in to play. When a cohort embarks on a journey together with the support of managers and HR, they’ll share experiences, insights, feedback and support to quickly grow capability and move the organization toward your goals. These shared pathways crush the forgetting curve.

Application on the Job for the Business

It’s one thing to provide a conceptual connection between learning and the organization’s most crucial business needs. It’s another to actually clarify how to make that happen in practice. If business is changing and you’re training leaders to more effectively lead change, what sorts of changes are you looking for? What examples can you provide to help learners seek and generate their own opportunities for application, process efficiency, cost reduction, customer involvement, better communication with the workforce? What is it you’re trying to change to? Examples. Examples. Examples. If you are to realize true growth, leaders will need examples.

Making these connections brings the potential impact of learning to life, motivates change and ensures leaders will find their own opportunities to practice new skills. In fact, learners said that low relevance to the job, low relevance to business challenges and not enough opportunities to apply the learning were the biggest barriers to formal learning (Figure 2). For learning to lead to growth, leaders need to have the chance to practice their skills and see the payoff.

Strong leaders also like to compete — sometimes against other leaders, sometimes against goals or performance targets. But competition gets pretty boring if no one is keeping score. The same goes for leadership growth. Keeping score and showing leaders how they’ve grown helps support the powerful “why” and leads to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Lag measures like business performance (sales, margin, productivity and turnover) can provide powerful evidence that learning works. Real-time metrics and direct feedback from managers, peers and direct reports add even more relevant and meaningful data to drive continued growth. Ensuring that every development effort has these real-time measures built in will help leaders immediately see how well they are applying skills and growing.


No CEO, CHRO or individual leader should be asked to make an investment in leadership development if the goal is learning alone. Contrary to what many have been conditioned to believe, growth can and does happen, often very quickly. Entire business units have pivoted from internally focused efficiency machines to customer-driven growth engines. Empty leadership benches have been restocked for a new future. Unknown leaders have been found and prepared for major assignments. And these changes have happened in months, not years.


The secret? Don’t learn. Grow. 

Matt Paese is an author, researcher and leader of Development Dimensions International’s global succession and C-suite practice areas. He co-author of the book “Leaders Ready Now: Accelerating Growth in a Faster World” and “Grow Your Own Leaders.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.



  1. Good article and I agree.. GROW is the KEY word… Coming from a totally operational background, I walk in the footsteps of the CEO when building the program design and say.. “What do I want in a Leadership Development Program to achieve?” Tactical skill building that the particpant can practice that day, plus I would expect action/change/results. Therefore that there be a PROJECT that each particpant completes that moves the organization towards it’s goals, with measurable outcomes that proves they have the skills to lead a change project. But writing a paper is not the real world they should be prepared to Present their outcomes to the entire Executive Team.
    What has been 99.9% evident is that the particpants gain a sense of self confidence and a pride in being able to complete an approved project that can stand the test of ROI.
    It makes me feel great that the program has made a difference in the client organizations movement toward their strategic goals.

  2. Though I get the gist, I’d like to see figure 2. There are 2 figure 1’s. “biggest barriers to formal learning (Figure 2)”

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