Professional Development

Sending employees to conferences can be like burning money. Here’s how to boost your ROI

Emma Rhoades /

I remember very clearly the day I realised my new organisation was no different than any of the others I had been in.

It was when I sent an email to our executive team, as a follow up to the leadership conference we’d been to the week prior. The reply I received shocked me. It went like this: “Thanks Emma, we appreciate your contribution, but the exec team will take it from here.”

Boom! Take that Emma! You’re no longer needed. You don’t get a say in whether your ideas get implemented, or even to help implement them.

I started to wonder, what was the point? And then it hit me.

It was just a tick and flick exercise. Like all the other programs I’d completed.

My engagement levels went down, as did my respect for our leadership team. I realised they didn’t want change — they just had to make it look like they were doing something about it.

Why is it that organisations do this? And at what point will someone stand up and say ‘no more!’

Research suggests 75% of programs are not effective and most programs don’t even get evaluated properly.

Four reasons for this failure

1. Lack of implementation

Being able to take what you’ve learnt at a conference back into the workplace is by far the biggest frustration of many.

It’s also demoralising when you come back to the office all inspired, invigorated to be amazing, only to find no-one wants to discuss the event. So the training never gets mentioned again.

How on earth is someone supposed to implement their learning?

2. Lack of understanding

What’s the purpose of this conference?

What do you hope to achieve by spending this money?

Who is going, and why do they need this training?

What do you expect will change from the participants attending?

3. Lack of prior preparation

I remember attending a workshop where I hadn’t been told what our goal was. I had no idea why I was there, or what I was supposed to learn.

My manager had not given us any context to the training at all.

As a result, it took me half the day to work out we were looking at our productivity. (I’m still wondering what the purpose of the car karaoke was.)

4. Failure to measure the results

Alongside lack of implementation, failure to measure results is one of the biggest reasons for failure.

Have you detailed the success measures?

Has each person created their own action plan?

How will success equal business measures?

At what point are we able to prove a direct correlation from this program to increased business success?

If any of these sound familiar, and you, like me, are increasingly frustrated at the low effectiveness of these programs, then read on.

Three ways to increase ROI

1. Prepare

Preparation is key. We’ve heard that plenty of times. It’s also highly important when sending your people to an event. Make sure you identify why each person is going to this program. Where are their current gaps? Have you conducted a leadership-needs analysis first?

Prepare them for the learnings. Ask them to identify their strengths in relation to the topic being spoken about. What are their weaknesses? What do they want to improve? What does success mean to them?

Is your culture set up to accept change? Are you ready for these new leaders to come back inspired and ready to innovate? To disrupt? You might want to work on this first.

2. Implement

Ask each participant to create their own three-six month activation plan.

How will they take what they’ve learnt and implement it? Who will support them? What does this support look like? Is it their manager? A coach? HR?

This part is by far the most important aspect and where a good portion of your budget needs to be spent.

Get your participants to share their learnings, keep talking about it, keep asking how they are implementing what they are learning. The more you talk about it, the more important it becomes.

3. Measure

And by measure, I don’t mean just the presenter, or the room, or the hotel food. I mean really measure what people got out of it. And if your goal is team building, then spend some time working out what that looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like — and then measure the results, before and after.

What did each person want to achieve? How will this be measured? And how do you correlate these measures back to the organisation needs? Where will the business benefit from this program? You need to show a connecting pathway, otherwise, again, it’s just a tick and flick exercise.

Once you start to understand that leadership development needs to be project managed, you’ll no longer be sending emails to your people, like the one I received, telling them ‘what happens at the conference, stays at the conference’.

It’s not all lost though. Even if you can’t prove how much the business will benefit, some team bonding will inevitably happen. Just like the night I sang Closing Time with my general manager, as we were being asked to leave the venue.

NOW READ: Holly Ransom launches new festival-esque conference after learning a few things from Barack Obama

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Emma Rhoades

Emma is a leadership coach who helps managers become effective leaders and fosters thriving, innovative workplaces.

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