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Making Leadership Development Programs Work For Your Organization: 6 Best Practices

In my new role as Practice Leader for Leadership Development Solutions with Vantage, I am spending a lot of time thinking about how we can help our clients build innovative, meaningful, and experiential leadership development programs. This has been quite the learning opportunity (and if I’m being honest, quite the challenge) after taking all of our work virtual in early 2020.

Throughout this time, we’ve successfully built, launched, and executed on a series of leadership development programs across clients and industries. Aside from having a whole lot of fun (this is, personally, one of the most rewarding types of work I get to do), we’ve also started to capture key learnings about what makes leadership development programs really work. We’re considering these “best practices” because they’ve applied across various contexts and industries.

Before we proceed, let’s get aligned around what we mean when we say “leadership development program,” since these programs come in multiple forms. For the intent of this piece, we’re defining a program as: “a multi-component leadership development experience in which a cohort of professionals (first-time managers to the C-suite) participate in programmatic development over the course of 6+ months.” We typically blend one-to-one and group components to create both an individualized and shared experience.

Now that we’re aligned, we’ll describe our insights, and in the comments, we would love to hear what you’d add or build upon.

1. Ground the Program in Your Organization’s Culture and Leadership Reality

Before launching any leadership program – no matter the duration – it’s critical to spend time discovering what the business reality and current (as well as desired) leadership culture is for your organization.

Essentially, you will be conducting a needs analysis to more deeply understand your company’s strengths, gaps, and opportunities from a leadership perspective.

We recommend starting with the following questions, whether you’re doing this work internally or with an external partner. These should be discussed with senior leaders, program sponsors, and internal management professionals:

  • What is your company’s primary strategy?
  • What are your company’s core values?
  • How would you describe the company culture (both espoused and desired)?
  • What collective leadership challenges is your company currently facing?
  • What makes your company run, day in and day out?
  • What work has already been done in the leadership development space?

This last question is especially important if you are bringing in an external partner to help you build a program.

Tip: To facilitate great conversation around the questions above, consider hosting a series of semi-structured focus groups with 4-6 participants and one-on-one interviews with your most senior program sponsors. Capture and compile your learnings, and then check your understanding with your sponsors.

2. Begin with the End in Mind

To take a page out of Stephen Covey’s book, it is essential to build the framework for a leadership development program with the outcomes in mind. For example, as you build a program, we encourage you to consistently ask:

  • What outcomes are you looking to achieve – collectively? Individually? Organization-wide?
  • What does success look like – if this investment is worthwhile, what will you be able to say 6 months from now? 12 months from now?

Tip: Be sure to focus on both aspirational and practical outcomes. One key benefit of leadership development programs is their ability to bring aspirational visions to life through skill-building, ongoing conversations, and challenging growth experiences. In this regard, you might consider adding one more question to the list above: assuming the sky is the limit, what outcome would this program achieve?

3. Build Out Multi-Component Programs

As noted above, a successful leadership development program will feature both individual and group components.

Having leaders work within cohorts enhances learning, helps them build relationships (within teams and across functions), and cultivates personal networks that can be leveraged for long-term professional success.

In many programs, we’ve found success in leading peer coaching groups. In these sessions, skilled coaches facilitate conversations and dialogue surrounding key issues and challenges within the organization.

The idea here is to bring out “the wisdom in the room.” Instead of teaching, peer coaching sessions – when done well – allow coaches to ask insightful questions that spur dialogue, draw information out of the group, and in doing so, build coaching capability within the cohort too.

4. Pilot the Program

In order to create a program destined for long-term success, it’s important to consider the initial program as a pilot,  so you can learn, adapt and adjust, and capture insights as you go. In an ideal world, we would encourage partnering with a subset of an organization’s high performers to enlist them as co-creators of the program itself.

This is a powerful way to test design elements, while giving leaders opportunities to influence how the program is structured — which, as psychologists, we know enhances buy-in and helps create “program champions” to brand the program in meaningful ways.

For example, we recommend asking Senior Program Sponsors to select their successors, or other high performing members of their teams to participate in a pilot program and offer their feedback over time.

Tip: If the pilot is a success, invite the pilot program leaders to participate in future cohorts as mentors or facilitators. They will benefit from the enhanced relationship-building and ongoing learning environment long after the program wraps.

5. Enlist Senior Support and Sponsorship Early and Often

Without support and buy-in from the top, leadership programs, like many organizational initiatives, can die on the vine.

As you launch a program, encourage Senior Sponsors to be the first to invite program participants (e.g., through a welcome email), kick-off cohort sessions alongside program facilitators, share their development journey, and remain visible and present throughout the program.

In this way, they are able to lead by example, role model desired behaviors reinforced in the program, and provide support to participants.

Tip: Consider hosting “Fireside Chats” (a fancy name for virtual Q&A) with tenured leaders as the program unfolds. This provides space for program participants to get direct access to key leaders, learn from more experienced professionals, and ask questions to spur their own growth.

And last, but certainly not least…

6. Measure, Measure, Measure

It’s essential to the success of both current and future programs to measure progress and provide information about relevant business outcomes.

Leadership development ROI can have a tendency to be “squishy” (that’s a technical term) and often, it’s difficult to collect hard data on progress. However, the challenge doesn’t negate the importance of doing this, and when measurement is incorporated at the outset of the program, it builds in accountability among participants. (If people know their progress is being measured, it ups the ante to deliver!)

In this regard, it’s best practice to begin a program with an individual assessment, both to get a baseline understanding of a person’s leadership skills and capabilities, and to ensure leaders receive robust feedback as they begin their development journey.

We recommend measuring progress through “pulse surveys” to help participants capture ongoing feedback around where they’re moving the needle (and where they’re not). Leadership development is a lifelong journey, and measuring progress helps motivated professionals keep their foot on the gas and realize growth over time.

So, back to you, the reader! What would you add, challenge, or change? What leadership development practices have worked for your organization?

And if you would like to discuss your or your organization’s leadership needs, I’d love to chat.

About Stefanie Mockler

Stefanie earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Indiana University and a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. As a researcher, she has a passion for examining the ways in which individuals, and in particular women, can strive to achieve their desired work/life balance while succeeding in leadership positions.

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