Leadership Training: the Problem isn’t “What,” it’s “Who”

Firms are making efforts to invest in leadership training programs which inevitably experience a low ROI. After the first few attempts, results-oriented leaders invariably give up, writing off the experience as a failed experiment. Sometimes, it is. But as someone who has dedicated the latter part of my career to leadership development, I would offer this counterpoint:

  • Leadership training isn’t the problem: you’re sending the wrong people.

Now, this isn’t a universal principle. Some leadership training is just bad. Firstly, it isn’t done by people who know the world of accounting. Secondly, a lot of times, the “experts” aren’t using road-tested principles. Both of those things set a course for mediocrity.

Ambiguous results lead firms to one of two paths:

  1. Giving up on the idea — “we just want fully-formed leaders or people with the initiative to seek their own mentors, etc.”


  1. Developing their own training programs.

In both cases, assessing the value is often dubious.

Scouting True Talent

As the person responsible for cultivating leaders, you’re tasked with selecting the program to not only best fit your firm’s needs, but to also demonstrate value. The one thing a leadership consultant cannot do is pick the right people.

In our profession, the current leadership training model is one where we attempt to train a large number of people who may or may not have the capacity, for whatever reason, to become leaders. This training model is allocating with low returns because only a small amount may actually succeed.

Since 2008, staffing and retention have been identified as top concerns for many accounting firms. Many partners feel they’re facing a dearth of talent. In that scenario, “any port in a storm” seems to take over. In other words, firms are sending any reasonably competent potential leader with a decent personality to training. But is that a recipe for success?

A New Leadership Training Model

I’ve learned from my own experience — leading a firm and running a consulting company — that when creating a training curriculum, the real return comes when you alter the model slightly. In my master class, I utilize a model where we train those who their colleagues identify as leaders. We then place our attention solely on them. The profession ignores this crucial step, but this is where you see the ROI start to change.

The Managing Partner’s Role

This idea of colleague identification and nomination is becoming popular in a lot of sectors. In many cases, your executive team and other staff will see what you can’t. They will understand personality traits and identify leadership potential. Their opinion on the matter can go a long way. And in my experience, call out people who already have influence in your firm, whether in title or not. In short, these are the people who have won hearts and who have the truest potential to excel in positions of leadership. 

To sum up, consider using your resources to focus on those already in leadership positions and your returns will be much higher.