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Top barriers employers face in implementing leadership development

Top barriers employers face in implementing leadership development

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'Finding the right time' emerged as a top barrier among the leaders surveyed, followed by 'financial constraints' and 'a lack of internal resources'.

About one in four (23%) employers recently surveyed in the UK do not provide any L&D to their new leaders. Of those who do, about 69% of their HR leaders believe the provision is inadequate, according to new research.

This research, commissioned by Winckworth Sherwood and carried out in association with YouGov, involved 1,008 employees and 500 HR decision-makers between 30 March and 4 April 2023. 

*While the survey was conducted in the UK, HRO believes the content remains relevant and applicable to our readership in Asia. 

Among the findings compiled, the research noted:

  • 84% of employers reported barriers to providing L&D to leaders, with the top barriers being: a) finding the time for leaders to develop their skills; b) financial constraints, and c) lack of internal resources.
  • 72% of employees believe their employers can do more to improve their career development and progression into leadership roles, such as through a transparent career progression framework, future-proofing their role, and honest feedback.

Let's delve deeper into these findings:

Top barriers organisations face in implementing L&D for leaders

A total of 49.9% of HR leaders surveyed cited 'finding the time for leaders to develop their skills' as a top barrier, significantly more than 'financial constraints' as the second-biggest barrier (33.9%), and 'lack of internal resources' as the third (30.3%). 

To overcome the top-most barrier, the research noted the need for buy-in to L&D at the very top level so that leaders at all levels are encouraged and supported to preserve sufficient, uninterrupted time for L&D. "Influencing senior leadership to recognise the importance of L&D by really understanding the benefits of L&D to both employees and the business, for example, by showcasing success stories, will be important here.

Next, leaders at all levels need to have a clear answer to the question "What’s in it for me?" when they are assessing the priorities of their time. Will the L&D advance their careers? Will it help them tackle difficult issues they are facing with their team? Will it result in higher financial rewards?

That aside, there also comes the need for a culture of learning within the organisation, it was added. Finally, L&D teams and leaders should also give due consideration to how L&D can be designed to fit in with the organisation's strategy and culture. For example, could self-paced, on-demand learning which allows leaders to take charge of their learning and fit it into their schedules as and when they are able, be the right fit for the organisation?

Addressing the issue of financial constraints, the research noted the importance of presenting a clear business case to the Board. At the same time, decision-makers would also need to think about how it could be implemented without any significant costs – for instance by utilising internal leadership development.

On the third barrier, researchers recommended that organisations be very clear on the purpose or return on investment, and linking this as much as possible to the organisation’s strategic goals – i.e., be clear on what you are trying to do.

"What is crucial for the L&D programme should be carefully considered so that this can be concentrated on, without overstretching internal resources as, if too much is taken on, the quality of the L&D could be compromised or not be successful at all."

Apart from these three, the respondents also revealed the following barriers faced;

  • Leaders not following the training & development in practice (23.8%)
  • Resistance or disengagement by leaders (17%)
  • The training & development programme offered is not currently fit for purpose (15.9%)

How employers can improve career development into leadership roles

While looking into L&D for new leaders, the research also looked into how employees felt about their career development pathways into leadership roles. As revealed above, of the employees surveyed, 72% considered that their employer could take action to either implement or improve their opportunities for career development and progression into leadership roles.

In that vein, the top three improvements that the employees surveyed called for are:

#1 Providing a transparent career progression framework (25%)

As cited in the research, to tackle this, leaders can look into creating strong career paths, which include clarity on the required skills and competencies to reach various roles or career stages. Leadership teams can then identify available training and professional development resources for employees to gain those skills.

Finally, clearly and consistently communicating that information to employees enables them to make informed decisions and pursue growth opportunities at the company.

Demographics-wise, a higher proportion of the younger generation surveyed felt that their employer could do more to improve their career progression: 56% of employees aged 55 and over considered their employer could take steps to improve their career development versus 83% of under 35s; 81% of employees aged 35-44, and 72% of employees aged 45-54.

One reason this could be so, the research added, is because more older workers have already progressed into leadership roles.

#2 Future-proofing their role/enabling them to be more agile by developing new skills (25%)

The findings highlighted: "With the disruptive world we are living in it is perhaps not surprising that one of the top improvements that employees wanted was for their employer to support them in future-proofing their role and developing new skills to become more agile in the workplace.

"With the shortage of candidates in the job market for certain roles, it also makes sense for organisations to be focusing on developing their existing employees to fill those gaps where possible."

#3 Honest feedback on performance, development, and prospects for progression (24%)

As the results of the research suggest, around a quarter of employees (24%) feel they are not receiving honest or sufficient feedback in relation to their performance and prospects for progression.

In that vein, it highlighted, employees will only be able to align their performance with those criteria if they receive direct and honest feedback from their managers.

The remaining three improvements to consider include:

  • Funding qualifications (23%)
  • Funding training (22%)
  • More frequent feedback on performance and development (19%)

Top tips for effective conversations about performance

Keeping in line with the above findings, the research included 6 top tips for leaders to note in driving effective conversations about performance. 

#1 Build rapport

Feedback is only beneficial to the recipient if it is completely candid. Equally, the person receiving the feedback must feel able to honestly discuss their own challenges. It can therefore be helpful if the person responsible for having those conversations has a close and friendly working relationship with the employee in question.

#2 Have good intentions

Feedback is only constructive when it is given for the benefit of the recipient’s development and is not tainted by any emotional response to perceived shortfalls in performance. Before having such conversations, managers should check that they are seeking to communicate the feedback in question for the employee’s benefit. It can also be helpful to communicate the intention behind the feedback. So you might tell the employee that, whilst what you have to say might sound harsh, you are raising it because you want to see them succeed.

#3 Give feedback directly

As shared, there are always two (or more) perspectives when any shortfalls in performance are highlighted. Ideally, feedback should therefore be given directly by the person who experienced the performance in question, so that the employee can give their perspective and a constructive dialogue can emerge.

If feedback is given through an intermediary (for example, during a formal appraisal), then the manager should share the feedback and ask the employee to comment, rather than simply delivering the feedback as a direct statement of fact.

#4 Be representative

When collating feedback, managers should also ensure that the comments sought are likely to be representative of the employee’s performance as a whole. 

#5 Be timely

Ideally, feedback should be given immediately after the performance issue in question took place, so that any issues can be addressed at an early stage.

#6 Be positive

Research suggests that there should be approximately seven positive comments for every development point raised. As most people are also predisposed to focus disproportionately on negative feedback, focusing more on the positives helps to address that, and reduces the chances of negatively affecting an employee’s confidence and self-esteem.


If you are keen to gain insights into unique and innovative L&D strategies, gather your team to attend HRO's flagship L&D conference, Learning and Development Asia - taking place in Singapore and Malaysia in September 2023. Click through the links to find out more or contact us here!


Lead image: Shutterstock

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