Purpose – This paper aims to examine the personal and organisational factors that affected public sector managers' participation in leadership training programmes and their ability to transfer learning to their workplace. Design/methodology/approach – In-depth interviews were conducted with five Canadian and five Northern Irish managers who participated in one-day leadership training programmes. Findings – The uncertain environment throughout the public sector was the greatest inhibitor to training participation and transfer. However, other training characteristics and training design features were also noted (e.g. motivation, trainer influence). Practical implications – Public sector organisations must take concrete steps to address current environmental challenges to fully benefit from leadership training programmes. The paper highlights pre-, during, and post-training strategies that can be implemented. Originality/value – The findings illustrate that leaders in both public sector jurisdictions face similar issues and these have been exacerbated by the current turbulent climate. The authors suggest that to maximise return on training investment the public sector must create an environment supportive of training participation and transfer and suggest recommendations to help organisations in the future. These findings were facilitated by the use of qualitative training evaluation methods, not traditionally used in training transfer research.