Why I Said Stop Building Leadership Courses


I put up a post on LinkedIn last week that had quite a few readers clutching their pearls. It said, “No one. I repeat: NO ONE needs to build another leadership course”. Some took objection to the uppercase letters, others thought I was dismissing the skill entirely. Either way, I clearly touched a nerve to those with leadership training near and dear to their hearts. So, here’s an extended version of my opinion.

Google search “Leadership Training”. There are over 3,400,000,000 results. If only 10% of those hits are valid, there is still a ton of content, nay a shit ton, out there. We need to digest what already exists and find out what works, and, what does not. Leadership is a very difficult and complex topic, few do it well…even fewer teach it well. So, people build more courses to fix this perceived gap. It is a never-ending and very expensive loop. Which leads to my next point:

Psst…a lot of courses are ineffective. Like a LOT. Some estimates place only 10% of learning is delivering results. Having sat through dozens of leadership training sessions by different vendors, I would agree. But do not listen to my own anecdotal and humble opinion. The smart folks at Forbes and Harvard Business School are doing their own deep dive into the topic, which makes for compelling reading.

Now before you start sending me hate mail about why your content is the exception, the content is not necessarily the problem, although it certainly can be. I am glad to see trust falls have gone out of fashion – do not touch me ever, thank-you-very-much. The real issue, according to HBS is, “many HR professionals find it uncomfortable or impossible to confront senior leaders and their senior teams with the truth. They find it hard to tell them about how their leadership, organization design and policies and practices are the root cause of failures in strategy execution”. Applause to that truth bomb.

When a client says to me they want a leadership programme, if you dig deeper, it is usually code for one of the following:

  • Oops. We hired jerks and no one wants to work for them

  • We promoted strong individual contributors into leadership roles, and they are sinking

  • We do not have a succession plan (BTW – this is an HR, not an L&D problem)

  • Our competitors have leadership academies, so we want one

Let’s break it down a bit. Leadership training is not going to fix toxic culture. The best designed learning experience, complete with coaching, paced reinforcement, and heck, throw in an app, will do nothing. Fire your assholes, even if they are bringing in top revenue. They are costing you more in reputation and attrition.

Not everyone wants to be a leader. On my original post a few suggested I was personally lacking leadership qualities. Well, you may be right (albeit rude). I am the “I” in “team”. I do better as an individual contributor and carve my career towards my strengths. Only twice have I truly enjoyed leading a team (I am looking at you, Toronto Titans!). So, can the ladder upwards not include people management? One CTO I worked with refused to have direct reports because he knew he was not a good people leader. He was smart. For some, leading is a difficult distraction from what they are really excellent at.

Regarding the last point, of course everyone has some form of leadership training. However, make yours count. Two of my final suggestions are:

Go to the experts. Tasking your L&D department to build a Leadership Course is like asking your accountant to be your dentist. Do not have your own leaders be SMEs, because they are not. Work with people who know the skill well and have demonstrated success in this area. No, not a bunch of happy quotes, but actual tangible impact. If you cannot afford experts, at least curate from smart sources rather than wasting more money internally developing.

Challenge the C-Suite to define what they want leadership to be. There is not one style and some models out there are doing more harm than good. Kevin Miller MCIPD had a great point when he said we need, “a lot more high-quality focus on human-centred leadership skills, development of EQ, empathy, resilience, trust building, vulnerability, outsight, listening and practical coaching”. Some leadership styles I have been urged to adopt were just gross (see point above about jerks). We can do a lot more in this space

To be honest, I could have chosen from any number of topics for my post. No one should be building more courses on project management, coaching, communication, etc. The market is saturated with these too and is there really anything new to say? Skim from the best. I only selected leadership because in the past week, I have gotten no less than 23 emails advertising masterclasses, apps, webinars, and more, on the topic. It pains me to see companies, and my clients, get sold on solutions which do not address the real problem, and likely will not be effective. At the other end, there is a person trying to navigate their career and stay employed. Let's be smarter.

Annual Planning: The L&D Frenemy

LoriSidewalk (2).jpg

I am not known for my stellar decision-making capabilities, particularly when reacting impulsively, or after the words, “Here, hold my vodka”. One fateful summer night, the City of Toronto was laying fresh cement sidewalk. As luck would have it, someone (thankfully not me) did not notice all the caution signs and tripped right into the wet concrete, leaving behind two massive footprints, plus one elbow-print. The city workers were not impressed, but hey, it was an accident and they said a crew would repair it the next day.

Something I had always wanted to do is write my name in cement. Since the sidewalk was already ruined, why the heck not? I grabbed a stick and gleefully went to write my name. It does not take long to write Lori. When I finished, I expected to see my friends giving me the thumbs up. Instead, their jaws were wide open in shock.

I did not write Lori in the ruined sidewalk slab. I left my name in the pristine slab beside it. Um, oops.

So, whilst this is an example of a spectacular lack of planning and the consequences, there are equally damaging outcomes when one decides to plan obsessively. For example, the annual plan used by L&D departments.

Look, I get it. It is incredibly neat and tidy to begin the fiscal year with a list of courses to develop and get a dopamine hit when you tick each one off the list. It makes stakeholders and CEOs happy, and everyone gets a bonus in December. As a “bonus”, you end up with a curriculum on one of the following topics: Project Management, Leadership, or Presentation Skills. Enjoy taking care of that pet rock.

If you ask an L&D leader for their biggest challenges, a common complaint is no seat at the table with the business. As a consultant, I see all sides of the table and this is not an oversight.

It is a fact universally acknowledged when someone starts a group chat, someone else immediately creates a sub group chat, minus the people they think are annoying. Sorry L&D people. We are not invited.

Consider the following common experience: there has been a crisis and employees need to quickly know about a new operating procedure or there could be potential injuries and impacts to reputation. Learning is contacted but because the annual plan and budget has been set, there are no resources available. So, either a vendor is brought in at a very high cost, the content waits in the queue, or the business goes ahead and develops their own solution. BTW, nothing triggers an L&D professional more than a non-learning professional building content #ForReal. You will hear them passive aggressively pound at the “click next” button several cubicles away.

The business expects L&D to be agile, but there are agreed upon deliverables promised to stakeholders. Still, the annual plan is your frenemy. Yes, it makes you feel secure, but it is preventing you from moving forward.

I have written about triaging learning requests before (see here). Basically, it means prioritizing projects daily based on what will deliver maximum ROI to the business. Here are some more details on how it works:

Compliance content is considered steady state. You plug into your calendar the resources and budget allocation and consider it an unavoidable annual deliverable. My personal suggestion is to invest the absolute minimum into compliance training. There is so little room to be innovative, it is a CYA exercise, and has endless content reviews. Thank U, Next.

Next, plan for your big rocks, but not only on an annual basis. These are the large business initiatives which will require learning interventions. Pre-allocate 40% of your resources to these initiatives. You might be thinking, but all my resources are already dedicated to these projects! Yes, because the front-loading has been allowed via the frenemy annual plan. Use data and performance consult to only commit to projects with tangible ROI.

Thirdly, and this is where it gets jazzy, amend your intake process to capture the following:

  • Does this request have a risk (reputational, monetary, etc.)?

  • Is this request revenue generating?

  • Does this request align with the identified business priorities?

  • How many people does this impact?

  • What if nothing is done?

Now you have critical information to rank projects against each other and determine which have higher priority. Work should then be reprioritized daily (yes, daily), based on what will have the most positive impact on the business. So, if we think back to the crisis above, that request would be a heart attack and move to the front of the queue. Other projects with less critical impacts would be deferred.

I will not lie. Many stakeholders disliked this model because they wanted their work to be first. But these are people complaining in an emergency room about their stubbed toe when a spinal injury gets wheeled in. This reprioritization model means L&D is a better strategic partner, not wasting resources, and delivering better value.

Pro-tip: I recommend Workfront as the best tool to manage this type of model. I do not work for them, but it is the only software I have found to give the agility, reporting, and ability to reprioritize quickly.

Reconstruction meant I assumed my inadvertent vandalism would be destroyed. I was pleased to see not only has the sidewalk not been replaced, the new building is a liquor store. Yes, any North Torontonian buying wine will see a worse for wear LORI. Thankfully I did not add my surname.  

Learning in the Tsunami of Work


There is a train bridge in North Carolina which is 11 feet and 8 inches high. Unfortunately, this is not enough clearance for large trucks. After several accidents, the city:

  • installed signs

  • lowered the speed limit

  • installed a sensor that triggers an LED blackout warning sign when an overheight vehicle approaches

  • added a suspended padded bar to hit the roof of too tall trucks, and

  • implemented a red-light system to give overheight vehicles 50 additional seconds to rethink their choice

Yet at least once a month some poor individual rams into the bridge, which is affectionately called, “the can opener”. A very enterprising truck repair company installed surveillance cameras at the site and built a website www.11foot8.com. The collection of 140+ videos of people destroying their vehicle roofs, plus some funny commentary, makes for compelling viewing on a cold winter day (I lived through the polar vortex of 2019 – no judgement, please).

It is comfortably easy to laugh at someone’s misfortune, especially when they are so oblivious. It also flatters the ego a bit to think, “I would never be that stupid”. Well, not so fast. I have legit asked if there are beans in a bean burrito. And in a store that only sells black and white clothing basics (it is in the name of the brand and on every sign) I sincerely asked a sales associate if a shirt was navy blue. I could go on, but my invitation to join MENSA is clearly not just lost in the post.

But all of this gets me thinking about learning in the flow of work and what does it really mean? In the case of the bridge, they physically installed what we L&D professionals would consider just-in-time job aids, at every possible moment. To be fair, they have reduced the number of incidents, but the can opener is still fed regularly. And raising the bridge or lowering the road are not possibilities for several reasons, which only proves learning will never fix shitty design (I’m looking at you, software developers).

Look, we build a lot of content to plug performance holes, but these need to be surfaced at the precise moment of need to add value. This is not something we are good at. Likewise, SCORM content can only live tethered to a platform, which is a pain. So is the LMS, as a matter of fact.

Then there is the issue of notification fatigue. This used to be an overflowing email inbox which migrated into text messages. Now, you open your mobile device and every app is buzzing for your attention. People are drowning in this. How do we insert learning, and most importantly, have tangible impact and not be another wave in the tsunami?

It may seem counterintuitive, but the first step might be to focus less on new technology. Not forever, mind you. Simply pause for a bit and survey what already exists and consolidate platforms to streamline the noise. Then use data to locate the digital pub for your company. Find the place where people are already going and place your content in those locations. However, no one likes to see their teachers at a house party. Make sure you are facilitating, not controlling.

Approach learning solutions holistically. For example, my mobile device determined via GPS that I grocery shop on Saturdays around 14:00. Interestingly, one weekend a coupon for toilet paper was pushed out to me at 13:45. To some, this might be a bit Big Brother is watching. On the other hand, I saved $2 on loo roll, which face it, does not really have to go on sale. How could we similarly intersect value content into daily work?

Be comfortable not everything is learning with a capital L. Add “locate” to the bottom of the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid.

With the increasing complexity and diversity of skills, there are plenty of tasks people only do once. So, place what they require where and when they need it. Digital Kleenex box.

To insert learning into the flow of work, you need to truly understand the workflow. Ironically, I think we used to do this very well a decade or so ago, but like many trends in L&D, it has fallen out of fashion. It is important to understand the systems, environment, and processes, and design around those, rather than shoving a curriculum onto a learning platform (or ecosystem, or LXP, or NGLP, or whatever the cool kids are calling it). Put down your rapid authoring tool and spend a week on the shop floor.

Finally, fewer courses and more resources. Nothing new to say on this topic.

Personally, I do not think we really have the technology infrastructure to truly have learning in the flow of work in a meaningful way. This will develop as we get closer to an Internet of Things for the work environment, but that’s another blog post for another time.

As for www.11foot8.com, it is likely a problem with a limited lifespan. With driverless cars, drones, and AI, there is a good chance the height will become obsolete. We can cross that bridge when we come to it (see what I did there?). Until then, I will keep visiting the website every once in a while to procrastinate.

Wheels up for 2019

Quite a few events coming up in the calendar! Hope to meet you at one of them:

Brandon Hall Group and CrossKnowledge will be hosting a free webinar on Digital Learning Transformation on March 21st. I will have a banter with Paul Morton on going beyond the technology and practical tips on how to evolve. Link to register here: https://lnkd.in/e-6_YkB

Then it is back to my motherland of Poland for the e-Learning Fusion conference in Warsaw on April 10! Vodka and pierogi are calling. Join and hear my really bad, but earnest Polish (although conference will also be in English). https://lnkd.in/eeRSgjM

Totara Learning has a brilliant EMEA user conference in London on May 15-16. Come by to collaborate and share about L&D and the power of an open platform https://lnkd.in/dBj5-ux. I will be delivering the keynote on "The Learner Social Contract"

Back in Madrid at the end of May and planning a TBD in Australia in October. Time to get packing!

Panic at 29,000ft, or Learning Anxiety

Sorry to bore you all with another story about flying. However, it is healthier for my marriage if I talk about it here, rather than with my husband (who is really, really, tired of hearing about how each flight was worse than the last). Please indulge me a bit.

Last week, I went to the Degree LENS conference - always a crowd-pleaser, with excellent keynotes, curated conversations and plenty of time to network with smart people. Two notables were: Tim Munden, CLO at Unilever, and Barry Murphy, Global Learning Lead at AirBnB. The former was giving me a steady dopamine rush talking about marketing and learning, whilst the latter told my absolute favourite L&D bedtime story: he turned off his LMS and barely anyone noticed or cared. In conclusion, it was a worthwhile event and many vodka and sodas were imbibed in good company.

Of course, to get to NYC from Toronto, I had to fly. The planes are generally of an okay size on that route, so I booked the largest and made my way to the Big Apple, with some, but not a lot nervous energy (well, no more than usual). As my travel luck would have it, there was a thunderstorm. Not just any storm, but one prompting a flood advisory for Manhattan. Fun times.

Long story short: I survived the flight by doing a new move I call the starfish, which is one arm bracing against the window, the other gripping the top of the seat in front of me, and each leg in an iron grip against the legs of my chair. My FitBit tracked my heart rate at 152 BPM.


I’m sure 2 hours and 37 minutes in the cardio zone is a record for someone only sitting in a chair, but I have some undiscovered talents.

Beyond sharing my pain, this experience makes me reflect on two themes currently rattling around in my head about L&D: emotion in learning, and new skillsets.

I am positively obsessed with understanding flight and turbulence. To me, knowledge is power. I read aviation articles and watch videos explaining turbulence (even ones built in GoAnimate). My personal hero is Sully, who famously saved his crew and passengers during a crash landing on the Hudson. His blog is bookmarked. PilotPatrick? Yep, I am subscribed.

So with all of this information, why can I not make the leap to end my flying anxiety? Rationally, I know turbulence is just like waves in the ocean and cannot possibly rip the wings from a plane….incidentally, I also hate boats #justsayin. Nervousness stubbornly prevails.

Learning is emotional. Making the leap from acquiring a skill and consistently applying it is just as much a physical as a mental skill. Things like anxiety, and fear, can play a large part. Likewise, the buzz on the L&D street is all about the skills gap. Every presentation these days has a slide with some snazzy metric on how 83% of people do not have the skills for the jobs of 2025, or half of the jobs will no longer exist in 13 months, according to Wall or Sesame Street. All of these are framed as business and profit issues….and they are.

However, what about the end learner whose very income depends on constantly learning, lest the very real fear of being terminated? Imagine the anxiety for workers who have to rely on the efforts of L&D departments to stay employable? That alone negatively impacts the ability to absorb content.

There is a great risk for the learning profession to become self-defeating if we focus solely on the ROI and business outcomes. Yes, those results are how we get paid and win awards, but consider the sins we inflict upon learners for the sake of stakeholders or regulatory bodies. Everything from lockstepping, to legal jargon, to complex navigation, or pointless tests, prevent the employee from getting what they need to simply stay relevant in an increasingly gig economy.

To add to the heebie-jeebies, L&D is not immune to the need to upskill. I have done a number of digital learning transformations and as much as I hate to reveal this, not every employee makes it through. I do not relish these decisions and for all of my cynicism, they keep me awake at night. Unfortunately, there are many once highly sought-after and valued skills which are now relics. I do not need an instructional designer who can write learning objectives. I need a journalist who can interview a SME and write an engaging story in under four hours. Instead of a Storyline developer, I need a videographer to capture user-generated content, or a data scientist to decode learner behaviour and discover predictive analytics. It’s painful, but true.

I will probably never get over my fear of flying. Some have suggested Ativan, but this only removes my filter so I make awkward remarks with border officials (not good) and go on iTunes sprees, which explains Bananrama on my iPhone. I continue to white-knuckle my way around the world. And why? Because it is a part of my job. Yes, I am very grateful for the opportunities I have had and to do the things I do. It is a privilege. Easy? Not always. And I am not alone.

Millions of employees are faced with their own skyrocketing levels of stress and so much depends on the means of an individual to upskill quickly, or be replaced. We may be in the business of L&D, but we have the tools to keep people employed, if we behave responsibly. Apply this lens to your next project. Push back hard on your SMEs and stakeholders who want to cram all and sundry into bloated projects. Be ruthless defending the rights of an already over-taxed employee trying to stay relevant. Do better.

Learning Triage


It is no secret flying is my kryptonite. I would personally prefer to build 1,000 “click next to continue” lockstepped elearning modules with a SME from hell, than board a plane. Unfortunately, the universe does not operate this way and sometimes I must join the not-so-clear-blue skies.

I had such a scenario a few weeks back flying home from the TICE Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (great event, BTW – mark your calendars for next year!). It would appear Air Canada only flies tiny 12 row planes from Toronto to NC. To make matter worse, according to my turbulence app, our route was rapidly filling up with little orange triangles, indicating choppy air ahead. (Side plug for fellow nervous fliers: this turbulence app tracks real time forecasts from pilots AND you can place it on your tray during a flight and it will measure G-force during those bumps).

So, what’s a girl to do? Well, I hit the duty free. My plan was to get some vodka, make a little drinkie and sip on that should things not go smoothly. I picked out some Grey Goose (might as well go high end), paid, and waited for the woman behind the counter to pass me my purchase. Only she did not. Instead, she explained, “oh, you won’t get this until Toronto. People get drunk on flights”. Firstly, that was a bit harsh and judgmental. At most, I was going to have two ounces. Secondly, fine, I could see her point.

I went back to my gate and approached the flight attendant explaining my fear of hurdling 38,000 ft into the air in a soda can. She gave me a steely look and with a lovely Southern drawl said, “This is how it is gonna go down, honey. When that plane touches the tarmac, you have exactly ten minutes before the passengers deplane and you board. When I wave at you, there’s a bar in the next terminal. You figure out the rest”. I nodded solemnly and when she gave the signal, I took my cash and ran. In three minutes I chugged my glass of wine and made it back in time to board (I also ran into a fellow conference attendee which was super awkward considering I was gulping a Sauvignon Blanc).

The flight was surprisingly smooth, but grey skies were ahead. As I pulled down my luggage, I accidentally threw out my back. As in, searing pain and paralytic muscle spasms. I hobbled to the terminal, naively believing I could walk it off but no such luck. I collapsed in front of an airport staff member who poured me into a wheelchair.

As luck would have it, my helpful flight attendant saw me, but was suddenly not so friendly. With a stern side-eye, she asked me how much I had to drink. I protested, “one glass of wine”. My case was not helped when the porter handed me a 1 litre bottle of vodka and said, “You forgot your duty free, ma’am”. I have had many feel-sorry-for-myself moments, but being wheeled through customs in agony and tears, clutching a bottle of booze, missing an earring, and getting eye rolls from flight staff, ranks high.

So why the story? Well, I ended up in A&E and was given an amazing injection which sent me on quite a trip. During this happy time, I started ruminating on how I once transformed a learning project intake process to run like an emergency room triage…because I am that weird. Now that I am up and mobile thanks to physio, I thought it might be worth sharing. That and I still want to prove I was not paralytic drunk in an airport.

For years, I have hated building the annual learning plan. Mostly because it involves the creation of some large-scale learning curriculum on one of the follow favourites: coaching, project management, leadership, or innovation. If you truly believe you have something not already taught in the billions of pieces of learning content on these topics, then get thee to a TEDTalk. Curate, my friends.

The other reason the annual plan frustrates me is because it is usually based on the metric of proving L&D is producing more with less.

Year upon year, we deliver charts on increasing number of learning hours and courses taken, as we make our departments leaner. This makes stakeholders happy, but in the age of digital, our seat times should be decreasing, not increasing. We should be ditching the courses and leveraging faster modalities like video, articles, and infographics. These are fuzzier to plan for, but far more effective. Unfortunately, fuzzy does not please bean counters.

Lastly, shit happens. Sure, you can have annual goals, but this does not prepare one for the inevitable unknowns. These require agility and the ability to pivot. L&D departments who must prove their worth are hesitant to change course lest it negatively impact their end-of-year story to the stakeholders…even when it is the right thing for the business. It is simply bad press to not deliver against goals. It is how instructional designers get told, “happy trails”.

The solution for us was a triage. In an ER, cases are assessed by a nurse who judges the severity and initial complexity of the treatment required. In our team, we started with an intake site. Ours was based in Workfront, which is a magical tool. Business partners submit initial details about a potential learning requirement based on high-level performance consulting. These were then assessed by what we called, Learning Triage, for urgency, risk, and impact. For example, the request could be cardiac arrest regulatory breech requiring immediately attention, or a case of the sniffles because someone wants a course on a process adjustment (which for the record, should never, ever, be a course, but an infographic or communication, thank you very much).

So why did this work? For one thing, we could prioritise daily work as the business changed. Secondly, because we had Workfront (made from unicorn sparkles) we had real time metrics on utilisation and capacity. Basically, we could see what nurses and doctors were available to treat the learning patients and align accordingly. As a bonus, because this was an international organisation with a federated model, we could rapidly identify what I called epidemics: these were multiple requests for the same learning need from several lines of business. Without a centralised triage, each unit would have invested time treating the infection without identifying the outbreak source, so to speak. Lastly, we became very quick at identifying what requests were not learning, but communications or marketing. This cut about 50% of our traffic and made for better outcomes.

Some things did not work. Business lines were increasingly frustrated we were not delivering bespoke courses for every request. To stretch the metaphor, overuse of antibiotics is dangerous, and so is Storyline and SCORM for every learning intervention. We had to use a lot of data and metrics to prove other solutions were just as effective, which was a struggle at time. For more information about using data in performance consulting conversations, click here.

Likewise, our end of year metrics were not as clean. We had to demonstrate to stakeholders completions and assessments were not as valuable as engagement levels. To be honest, I am not certain we really bridged that gap. But when an infographic is viewed, liked, and shared, a thousand times, and people are going back to it several times, I truly believe we are empowering our audiences better than any course hidden on an LMS.

Despite all of this, I would still use the triage model before annual planning in a heartbeat. Too often L&D is brought to the table late and we are unable to respond quickly. Once we ditch the courses as the only cure, leverage agile management of our resources, and have the fortitude to say no when the treatment will not benefit the patient, then we become effective partners. If not, we are the dreaded under appreciated cost centre.

As for my back, I have returned to my 20K steps a day (thanks Fitbit) although I have yet to be able to wear high heels. This is particularly annoying because I am 5’2” on a good day. Yet this whole episode made me think a lot about my health and the importance of being more mindful. Perhaps this is the real lesson. Keep stretching, kids.