A Quick-Start Guide to Leadership Training Done Right

Key Points:

  1. When delivered effectively, leadership training programs can improve leadership, change behavior, and help an organization’s bottom line. But you can’t just assume that the training you’re considering (or already receiving) is actually being delivered effectively.
  2. You should conduct a needs analysis before beginning training to ensure that the program that you’re considering is a great fit for your specific needs
  3. Having a skilled teacher training your employees is usually better than e-learning without an instructor present
  4. On-site learning is better than off-site training
  5. Feedback is incredibly important; but more sources of feedback doesn’t necessarily seem to improve learning.

Did you know that leadership training programs – designed, delivered, and implemented wisely – can lead to a 25% increase in learning, a 28% increase in leadership behaviors on the job, a 20% increase in overall job performance, an 8% increase in subordinate outcomes and a 25% increase in organizational outcomes?

In a recent meta-analysis, including data from 335 studies with a total of 26,573 participants, Christina Lacerenza and her colleagues found just that!

Not all training is created equal…

Although leadership training in general is effective, the meta-analysis reveals that one size does not fit all. Differences in design, delivery, and implementation show differences in outcomes.

The importance of a thorough needs analysis

It’s crucial to conduct a needs analysis before designing a program, to design a program that fits the specific needs of the trainees and your organization.

To know the training needs, you have to know the objectives of the training. Identify them by asking yourself:

  • “Who are my stakeholders?”
  • “What outcome(s) are they trying to reach?”
  • And (if you’re trying to influence more than one outcome) “Is there any priority of learning or outcomes to consider?”

Does it matter who the trainee is and what skills are being taught?

Leadership training offered to low-level leaders produces larger effects than programs offered to middle- or high-level leaders. This is largely because high-level leaders are less likely to transfer their new skills – that is, to use them on the job after training has long since past. The type of skills also matters a great deal. When it comes to learning and transfer of training to day-to-day work, business skills are easier to improve than soft skills. However, improving soft skills has greater effects including organizational outcomes and subordinate reactions.

Delivering training: use more methods and more sessions!

Lazerenza and her colleagues also found that one method often just isn’t enough to deliver the content of leadership training programs. It’s better to include multiple teaching methods to ensure the training sticks. A program may simply provide students with information. However, it would be far better to also demonstrate the skill in use and to let the trainees practice the skill. Information-based training includes the most common forms of delivery such as lectures and presentations. Demonstration-based training shows the trainee negative and/or positive examples of the competency they are being trained to develop. Finally, practice-based training includes role-play and simulations. If for some reason different methods cannot be combined, practical training is the most effective.

Providing multiple training sessions is also likely to be a key success factor since it increases the transfer of training to the job.

What are the most important features of a training instructor?

Lacerenza and her colleagues found that it doesn’t really matter if the instructor is hired as an internal or external trainer. However, having an instructor is more effective than trying to learn on your own. This could be because training instructors can help adjust the level of training difficulty and give direct feedback. Whereas students learning on their own tend to experience more technical difficulties whether they be problems with the e-learning system or due to user error on the part of the trainee.

Location, location, location!

The researchers found that location matters: on-site training is more effective than off-site training.


Using feedback, the transfer of training can be enhanced. However, more sources of feedback are not better than one. Lacerenza and colleagues found that there was no significant difference between 360 feedback (i.e., from the leader, peers, subordinates and other colleagues) and single source feedback. More sources might not always add more accurate information in the context of leadership training.

Takeaways for your practice:

• Do a needs analysis before designing the training program – this is the key to success. Knowing the objectives of the training helps you to identify your specific training needs.

• Business skills are easier to improve than soft skills. But improving soft skills has more effect, and bigger impact on organizational outcomes and the subordinates’ reaction to the training.

• Design your training so it contains instruction and demonstration as well as practice of the skills trained if possible. If it’s not possible, prioritize practical training .

• Choose multiple training sessions over fewer. Choose having a teacher over self-adminstered programs. Choose on-site training over off-site training.

• Feedback is vital to make sure the new skills are used when the trainee is back on the job. But the number of sources of feedback doesn’t tend to matter much.

By designing and delivering leadership training wisely, you can make a meaningful improvement to your leadership team and have a measurable impact within your organization!

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is substantial but limited (70%). This means there is a 30% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Lacerenza CN, Reyes DL, Marlow SL, Joseph DL, Salas E. (2017). Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol. 102(12):1686-1718. doi: 10.1037/apl0000241. Epub 2017 Jul 27. PMID: 28749153.

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