A question that I normally get asked by prospective clients is about evaluation. And rightly so. When an organisation is investing a significant amount of money and time on their key individuals the question on their mind is always – how are we going to measure the success of this programme?

Unfortunately if anyone brings in a Return on Investment discussion at this point they’ve completely missed the point. Frankly, it is quite impossible to accurately measure the contribution from a return on investment point of view of a specific leadership programme. In my opinion, the key reasons for this are:

  1. An effective leadership development programme should have a fairly flexible structure to focus on the bespoke learning needs of the individual. If an organisation is too rigid in the way it’s developing its key staff then the learners are not benefitting fully from the investment the company is making. A successful leadership programme that brings in the intended result of transformational learning and change is not a rigid one. It adapts to the learner, their specific circumstances and their role. Therefore, if a programme is designed in this way, to make the most of experiential learning, evaluating it becomes tricky. Evaluation relies on logic and linear patterns; which a powerful leadership programme is not.

  2. Leadership development programmes are generally quite lengthy and it’s not uncommon to find programmes that last 2 or even 3 years. From an evaluation point of view it is difficult to do a holistic review of a programme that spans over such a lengthy amount of time. 

  3. Another point to consider is that typically these programmes are set out for our most senior leaders. Very quickly, challenges such as sensitivity issues (due to the nature and position of the leaders) and confidentiality start cropping up. These, in practice make it difficult to accurately and reliably collect evaluation data.

  4. Finally, the intake on a leadership development programme is typically much smaller than that of any other development programme. Therefore benchmarking is tricky as you’ll be dealing with rather small numbers and the comparisons won’t be particularly insightful.

So is there nothing that we can do?
Actually there is a lot! The focus however should shift away from the quantitative style evaluation of Return on Investment. I find that more focus should be given to the following areas:

  1. Monitoring should be happening regularly to ensure that the programme that the individual is on is still fit for purpose. Communication between the L&D  manager, the direct line manager and the individual is key. If something is not working and challenging the leader then a different approach is required. Remember though, not every leader is challenged by the same approach!

  2. Shift the organisation’s mentality from a Return on Investment to a Return on Expectation mindset. Throughout the programme consult the stakeholders that had originally invested interest. Keep them updated, gather their feedback and also think about the expectations of the organisation. How do they want to see these individuals developing?

  3. If your aim is to truly develop leaders then there are other areas that an organisation should be focusing on; such as the recruitment of these individuals onto the programmes, the match between coach and the learner, and the support of the direct line manager for example. 

So typically, when a client asks me about evaluation my goal is to understand what is the rationale behind their question. I find that people in organisations using the word evaluation as a catch-all for a number of different objectives they want to achieve. So the key here is to ask the client back.

What is their aim for asking? What do they want to do an evaluation for? What do they expect to get out of the evaluation? 

What are you thoughts on evaluation of leadership programmes? What do you do in your own organisations? Let us know if you agree with us, or not!