3 major problems with traditional leadership development training (and how to solve them)

By Rosalie Millard-Evans BSc. MSc. Ch.Psychol

For many years, organisations have spent time, money and resources on improving the leadership capability in their organisations through leadership training.

However, according to a Mckinsey & Company survey, adults typically retain just 10% of what they hear in classrooms.  Cramming all the key learnings into one lengthy training makes logistical sense, but it greatly restricts learning retention. Furthermore, the focus is usually on skills and behaviours which don’t go deep enough to result in real change.

The 3 major problems are:

  1. Limited transfer of learning.

“I have always considered myself more as a people person rather than an animal person, but throughout the day, it became apparent that leading a horse is just like leading people: you need to set a vision, be clear on objectives and engage effectively in order to get a great result.” Sebastien Le Roux, VP – GlaxoSmithKline

We only move from knowing to doing when changes take place at a deep neurological level – through insights (‘aha’ moments), which create complex new neurological connections. One of the problems with traditional learning approaches are their limited ‘stickability’. You attend a programme, and knowledge is acquired, but the challenge comes with putting the learning into practise in a sustainable way.  When you go back to your day job, clients and emails take priority and applying that valuable learning takes a back seat.  This creates a gap between theory and practice; between awareness and action; between what we know and what we do.

So, how do you create these ‘aha moments’?  Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) states ‘knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ – in short, insight comes from experience.  This approach to learning through creating new insight is the basis of coaching and peer advisory groups such as Vistage and Entrepreneurs Organisation Network.  They create a safe and confidential environment that harness the learning cycle to help members gain new insights and develop more effective strategies.

It’s this that makes experiential learning with horses so powerful, as you experience the difference. So, is this a new fad or a truly beneficial way to enhance learning? Kolb’s recent research into equine facilitated learning seeks to answer that. His research found interactions with horses facilitated an accelerated learning cycle, and what’s more he found that working with the horses forms powerful episodic memories that inform future interactions. This means that the impact of the learning lasts well beyond the initial experience.

Our CEO Rosalie, who regularly delivers our equine facilitated learning sessions,  says she’s had many instances where clients report having a ‘Puzzle’ or ‘Tinkerbell moment’ – where, following their session, they ‘tap into’ their experience with the horse at future pivotal times, such as important meetings, negotiations or interviews, to get a better outcome.

  1. Role play vs Real play.

“The experience with horses addresses and magnifies all the key leadership skills in a concentrated and non-simulated environment, and provides instant and unbiased feedback and gives immediate opportunity to take corrective actions and see the results.” Product Development Director, Motorola

Many training programmes focus on developing skills. The challenge with doing this away from the work environment means it is necessary to role play scenarios, and ‘act’ how you would behave at work. When we role-play it can be hard to behave authentically in what is clearly not a ‘real-life’ situation. Furthermore, the feedback you receive to improve the skill is less tangible in the simulated environment, so when you return to work you still need to learn to apply those skills to a ‘real life’ situation.  The alternative is real play. Horses are

authentic beings and interacting with them is for real. Working at liberty gives a horse choice in how it responds and creates the opportunity for leaders to test how well they create followership.  By interacting with horses on the ground (non-ridden) participants receive instant, honest, and importantly non-judgemental, feedback on how they ‘show up’, and through non-directive coaching can make changes to their thinking, emotional state and body language to get a different response.  The changes they make are reflected instantly in a dramatic and memorable way by the response of the horses. This allows critical ‘in the moment’ feedback that results in rapid skills development and importantly allows you to experience success – creating a ‘mental memory’, an emotional ‘state’ that you can ‘tap’ into or draw on later.

  1. Focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ over the ‘why’

“Who am I? How do I project, lead and communicate? Before today I had my own perceptions. A horse called Monte has taught me otherwise. Thanks Monte, you have given me a completely new vision on leadership and expectation.”

Managing Director, Organon Laboratories

Often the focus of learning is on new skills and behaviours which can be easily seen and measured through your actions. They are tangible and visible elements of what we do.  Behaviours are the ‘what’ and skills are the ‘how’.  However, by working with the ‘who’ and ‘why’ we engage with your sense of self, identity and personal values.  You can then start to explore how values and beliefs support or hinder your leadership, the drivers of your self-belief, how you interpret events in terms of your own self-worth, whether you believe something is possible or impossible, whether or not you feel motivated.

By working at these higher neurological levels, we help leaders find the ‘keys’ to make personal changes, which are then observable in your behaviour. The ‘Courses with Horses’ go beyond behaviours, skills and competencies to explore beliefs and identity. Horses are adept at reading intention and authenticity, and by mirroring this in their behaviour, they provide participants with instant honest feedback – allowing leaders to ask – “who am I?” and “who do I want to be?”.