Graduate Leadership Programs Are Broken. Here’s Why

Structured training programs for newly graduated undergraduates and post-graduates are quickly replacing the standard on-boarding orientation for new hires. Here in Asia, virtually every large multi-national comes to campus pitching their fancy program, whether they’re called a Management Associate (MA), Management Trainee (MT), or Graduate Leadership Development Program (LDP).

These programs take the standard new hire orientation and training, and super-size it by extending it over 1-2 years. Those that are deemed talented enough to enter these exclusive programs are typically rotated through multiple functions of the business every 4-8 months, some even rotate geographies and offices. Most importantly, these chosen few are given the high-potential label and provided extra mentoring, training and visibility throughout the organization, with the hope that one day they will fast-track to become future leaders.

But are these programs actually working? Having surveyed over 200 people who’ve participated in LDPs, along with the fact that operational costs of these programs continue to rise, and the retention rates of organizations going in the opposite direction, it’s our hypothesis that these LDPs are failing, especially here in Asia.

Today, the LDPs in Asia can be generally classified in 3 buckets.

The company took a mature version of an LDP from either the U.S. or Europe and then tried to “Asia-fy” it;
They tried to build a program from scratch, but with HR capabilities in the region quite immature, most HR practitioners didn’t really know what they were doing;
The company has an LDP, but only for marketing and recruiting, because if you don’t have one of these programs today, who’s going to join you?!
So, regardless of the program you have, why isn’t it working? Well here are 3 potential reasons:

1. Company Loyalty is Dead

Since LDPs in Asia are a fairly new concept, those that have gone through them are almost all from Generation Y. And those of you that are in this generation or have interacted with this “special” group already know how different they are from the rest.

As Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) mentions in his book The Alliance, people in this generation no longer think of their employers as family, and they don’t want this type of relationship anymore. The average length of stay of surveyed participants was less than 3 years (35 months including their program).

Employers are also guilty, as the disturbing trend of offering short-term contract roles continues to rise. So, do you think just because you’ve given your young high-potentials this special tag they will feel obligated to stay longer? Some employers may even think they are catering to their young talent, but are they really giving their future leaders what they want?

2. Expectations vs. Realities

After all the hype and marketing during the on-campus recruiting process, high-potentials enter LDPs with extremely high expectations of what these fast-track programs will deliver, but start to get a different picture once things begin. 67% of participants who dropped out of their program before completion cited unmet expectations as their number one reason for doing so.

Rotations are a common part of LDPs where expectations are not always aligned. In geographic rotations, when high potentials who might be top performers in their home market are sent into counties they know little about, and with no support, frustrations start to set in, for both the employee and employer. Current business needs tend to be the key driver on how rotations and assignments are structured. Little tailoring is done based on a particular person’s skills and development needs.

And a final source of frustrations typically occurs when the official program ends. What happens next isn’t communicated in a fully transparent manner, culminating in a series of unmet expectations finally turning into disappointment.

3. People Don’t Leave Companies, They Leave Managers

Managing people is difficult, period. Managing Gen Y high potentials can be even more of a challenge. However, in most companies, very few people managers would admit to being inadequate in this area and raise their hand for help. The constant emphasis on bottom line results seems to always overshadow the need to improve these all-important soft skills, despite the fact that 75% of participants rated managers as important or very important in their program experience.

Very few people managers have KPIs related to the retention of their staff, so there is little incentive to change. These day-to-day people frustrations rarely get noticed by HR until it’s too late. With YOLO (You Only Live Once) being one of the mottos of the Gen Ys, many top performers already have one foot out the door before their actual program finishes.

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Understanding the problems and identifying the key issues are just the first step. Step 2 is what we at Kwantum Leap are undertaking now, research to gather data to confirm/dispel current beliefs, and to validate our hypothesis on both the issues and some potential solutions.

Instead of taking the typical top-down approach, we’ve purposely gone bottom-up, having already surveyed several hundred people who’ve completed an LDP.

This data driven approach will give us the foundation to surface real insights and suggestions to take the third step – help HR functions transform their high potential programs.

Do you agree? Have you experienced something similar or something better? If you’ve completed a graduate leadership development program and would like to participate in our research, we’d love to hear from you – http://bit.ly/LDPsurvey

(A version of this article was first published here in the Singapore Business Review)

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