A DEI Litmus Test: Is Corporate Leadership Training a Good Investment?

In a survey of nearly 300 leaders in the HR space, close to half reported to Capterra that their learning and development budget was growing in 2022 – a steady increase from 41% of HR leaders the year prior. But as the economy grows more turbulent, and layoffs and hiring freezes become more common, many L&D professionals are now fighting to maintain their budgets through the end of the year.

When wallets are tight, business leaders tend to fall back on what is familiar. Afraid to take risks, they (mistakenly) assume that what is “tried and true” will weather the storm. Namely: niche skills training allocated to top performers of select verticals, and/or leadership training for the top 20% of the company.

The rationale is: meet everyone where they are, and just make them better at it. But the problem is: this leaves little room for the meaningful kind of growth that helps companies compete and excel in the marketplace. Not to mention – the internal growth that keeps employees from flying the coop.

It’s no secret why most niche skills training programs fail to produce an ROI; they are often pre-recorded with high dropout rates, hyperspecific (i.e., cannot be repeated or scaled), and/or occur in isolation — sidestepping opportunities to solve larger company culture and collaboration concerns. But the downfall of corporate leadership training is a little more complex.

Why Most Corporate Leadership Training is Not Effective

The majority identity of corporate leadership is resoundingly white and male. Although Black men and white women gained a little ground over the past decade, there is still a massive gap in representation between executives and the rest of the organization — most glaringly for Black women.

When considering corporate leadership training, these facts matter. Reason being: how we define “a leader,” and what style of leadership we choose to celebrate and actively instill in employees has the potential to either curb or fuel diverse representation. Not to mention: if we move beyond the notion that leaders only exist at the executive level — and begin equipping all employees with leadership skills — diverse talent may actually stand a chance at bringing an empowered perspective to the decision-making table.

Bottom line: not all corporate leadership training is a waste of the L&D budget, but the majority of programs are designed (and delivered in silos) to maintain a white-washed, masculine style of leadership — a damning consequence against widespread efforts to prioritize equity and inclusion and elevate diverse talent.

If your organization is considering a leadership training program, reflect on the following to determine whether or not it will be effective toward the goals you’ve outlined for the company.

Defining Effective Leadership

First and foremost, it is important to assess your expectations.

Questions to ask:

  1. What is my perception of a “good leader?”

You — and/or whomever may hold the decision-making power — are influenced by your own subconscious biases, and in corporate America, there is a very clear image of what a “leader” should look and act like. It is vital work to dissect that.

Give yourself permission to think outside of the box you are comfortable with. What qualities will usher positive change?

2. Who will lead the leadership training?

Who stands in the driver seat of the training speaks volumes about the organizations’ perception of “a leader.” Can the facilitator relate to a broad range of perspectives? (Not just those at the executive level?)

Or, could bringing in a radically new perspective be overdue? Many corporate leadership trainings are spearheaded by the men who spent decades building our current system, but not all “traditions” are meant to last…

Scaling Effective Leadership

Beyond the immediate logistics of the program, think ahead of the final session. How could this leadership training influence the company long-term? Is it truly scalable?

Questions to ask:

  1. Where is the best place to allocate this resource?

A glaring issue with most corporate leadership training programs: they are facilitated to those who need it the least. If someone is already in a position of leadership, or pegged as a “high potential,” there’s a good chance that they already possess (or align naturally with) leadership qualities that bode well for their success.

Why throw money at a well that fills itself, when you can invest in those who may have all of the insights to take the company to the next level, but simply lack the guidance to share them with others?

Internal mobility for diverse talent is a huge factor in building a truly equitable and inclusive company, and enabling those career prospects begins with investing in entry- and mid-level: where female and non-white talent are often “stuck.”

2. How will new perspectives be integrated after the training? Is there room for the training to evolve?

Although it may not seem like a DEI-related concern, integration of what is taught in a training is also a major element of the investment to consider. If you are doing all of the work to dissect the anatomy of an impactful program, it would be a waste to not also consider how you will continue to cultivate and demonstrate its value.

Does your company have the internal resources to back an integration plan? Or would you do well to partner with an organization that could bear more of the administrative lift, beyond the facilitation of a one-off training?

The Bottom Line

Without downplaying the intense work of confronting internal and organizational biases, navigating the definition of a leader (as delivered through a prospective training) is a much easier feat compared to finding a training program that can be scaled to the entirety of an organization (without breaking the bank), and integrated into the company’s evolving culture.

At The Forem, because we believe that democratizing leadership skills is vital to building a more DEI-conscious corporate landscape, we’ve made alleviating those pain points our mission.

Our live, interactive programs are fully-scalable to 10,000+ employees simultaneously (across timezones, departments, and functions), with built-in accountability systems to ensure practical integration of skills learned, long after the final cohort workshop.

Meaning: there’s no excuse to handpick who gets to reap the spoils of a quality program — a process inherently vulnerable to bias. Every employee can tap into their own unique potential for leadership: to the benefit of their careers, and your company.

Learn more from a member of our team.