Experiential leadership programmes: Do they work?

Immersive experiential programmes that develop the human skills needed for leadership require linkage to organisational goals and careful consideration of ROI.

It’s well understood that to develop as a finance leader, technical accounting skills are not enough. In order to lead, technical skills need to be coupled with “human” skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

But what are the best ways to learn those?

One approach is experiential learning — defined by US psychologist and educational theorist David A. Kolb, Ph.D., as having two aims: learning the specifics of a particular subject and also learning about one’s own learning process. Kolb also put forward a four-stage learning process: Experience, Reflect, Think, Act.

The Leadership Trust, a training organisation founded in the mid-1970s by a retired UK special forces officer, develops leaders’ human skills through experiential learning. Its CEO, Léa Cléret, said in an interview with FM: “The one thing that we would want leaders to have when they leave our course is a heightened sense of self-awareness.”

She explained: “It’s getting people to understand their emotions, what triggers them. The impact of their emotions on their own behaviours and the impact of their behaviours on the emotion and behaviours of people around them.

“[What] we believe to be at the core of leadership and leadership development is that you need that initial sense of self-awareness to be able to build all of the other leadership skills that you need … to effectively run and grow a business.”

Feedback skills

Darren Joffe, ACMA, CGMA, commercial finance director at the London-based Financial Times who leads a team of 20, improved his approach to receiving and delivering feedback after going on a Leadership Trust five-day immersive course. He said: “There can be a perceived dark side to organisations where people may fear giving feedback … particularly if the organisation is too polite and too aligned in their thinking and behaviours.”

He added: “I’ve always been diplomatic. I’ve always looked for the most thoughtful way to give feedback. But the key thing is, if you’re not helping people see their blind spots, you’re not being an effective leader. Because how are they supposed to know where their development points are and how to deal with those if leaders aren’t upfront and [giving] that feedback?

“You are doing a disservice and withholding growth from them and your company. But it needs to be done right, which also fosters trust.”

For Joffe, a further benefit of taking time to enhance his leadership capability was to learn about what he described to FM as “bounce energy flow” — how people become more productive if they leave a conversation where they’re feeling energised and better about themselves.

Emotional intelligence

Joffe said: “I think there’s an incredible space in the world of management accounting where we talk about diversity, inclusion, ESG. [This] plays an incredible centre point around building ourselves up as emotionally intelligent accountants.”

However, he questioned whether finance profesionals have a full understanding of what is required of them. He said: “You may think, ‘I’m pretty self-aware. I connect with people.’ But I genuinely believe there are elements that people won’t be seeing or understanding.”

He said experiential learning programmes can “add a wholly new development dimension to the mystical space of leadership”.

According to Cléret, experiential learning allows participants the “ability to access ‘privileged’ information that you would not be able to access through normal corporate processes”.

Christine Buscarino, COO and chief marketing officer at global business training company Dale Carnegie, said it’s important to focus “on interpersonal skills, empathy, and having difficult conversations”. She added: “We’ve found these skills to be universally challenging regardless of industry.”

She said: “We’ve found the most optimal situation for driving performance change is when an individual is able to experience an immersive training followed by smaller [sustained] training opportunities. The immersive experience can be in person or online but is in a live format with a trainer.”

Learning from others has many benefits, she suggested: “Becoming inspired by others can open pathways and create space for [an] individual to work outside their comfort zone, to take chances, and expand their abilities.”

Financial cost

Providing experiential learning opportunities for employees requires an initial financial investment. Experiential learning, Buscarino said, requires “more time to learn, apply, and report”. She added: “It requires organisations and individuals to make a larger upfront commitment, with the trust that this learning style will produce longer-lasting results.”

She suggested that “time-spaced learning” allows individuals to try new approaches and report back on them weekly. “Time-spaced training also helps to foster community in the training room, which in turn supports additional growth as people feel safe to take risks and are inspired by others,” she said.

Before you invest

Businesses should consider four points before funding employees to sign up for experiential learning programmes, according to Cléret. They are:

Invest in programmes when the company is succeeding

“These programmes are performance-enhancers, not problem-fixers,” Cléret said. The programmes are expensive, and to change behaviours takes time — longer periods for larger companies. She said: “If your company is already in financial trouble, this is not necessarily the right place to start. If your company is already doing well and you are looking at how to take things to the next level, this is the way to go.”

Include an evaluation process in the programme design

The biggest reason that leadership development programmes sometimes “provide a feeling of wasted money” is that they are not evaluated rigorously, or not at all, Cléret said. A proper evaluation process will help focus the programme and provide you with all the KPIs.

Link leadership development to organisational goals

A leadership development programme designed without a clear goal in mind is “the surest way to spend a lot of money and not be able to show anything for it”, Cléret said. “You have to start by identifying the objectives of the programme and then retro-engineer your design back from that end goal. This will enable [you] to set milestones and monitor that you are on the right track,” she added.

Be prepared for surprising — and sometimes uncomfortable — feedback

It is possible that employees don’t perform at their highest potential because the organisational system doesn’t allow them to, or even because the leadership of the senior team could be improved.

“Leadership development programmes are wonderful tools to bring blind spots into the light, which can be quite uncomfortable,” Cléret suggested.

Return on investment

There are two questions to ask when considering the effectiveness of leadership skills development, Cléret said:

• Does the programme enhance the level of skill and knowledge of the individual?
• Is the learning effective in enhancing the company’s overall performance?

She suggested that businesses show confusion with respect to the issue of effectiveness. “ ‘Yes’ to question one doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes’ to question two. Sometimes the answer to question two is ‘no’ for reasons completely independent to the training programme, and the inaccurate conclusion is often made that the answer to one is ‘no’,” she said.

Having a team of employees who are more developed at a personal level with enhanced human skills is only one of the tools required for business success, she said.

“Experiential learning will not address directly product and process. Therefore, concluding that there was no ROI on a leadership development programme can be a short cut,” she said.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at


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