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How to build a successful leadership development program

Leadership training can have huge dividends, when it's done right. Here are seven best practices for building a leadership development program that works.
leadership development program
Credit: Brian Lemen & Ana Kova; Image Sources: Adobe Stock, StarJumper, Jiw Ingka

Around the world, organizations invested a sizeable $3.5 billion on leadership development programs in 2019. Many of these programs combine training with coaching opportunities — whether online or in-person — to prepare employees to thrive in supervisory positions. Is the investment worth it? The short answer: absolutely.  

While companies often look outside of the organization to find their next C-suite hire, research suggests that most employees believe developing talent internally is a better solution. In a recent study from Joblist, 71% of employees stated that promoting leaders from within was better for scaling the business, and nearly two-thirds said they would prefer to be managed by an internal hire.

With an overwhelming preference for internal hires over external ones, $3.5 billion seems like money well spent — but not all leadership development programs are effective. This article will break down seven best practices for building a successful program.

Building a leadership development program: 7 best practices  

Many organizations are moving away from hierarchies and toward new systems that embrace flexibility. Leadership development programs should follow suit if they are to adequately prepare employees for the future. Some of the latest trends in leadership development include training employees to adopt an agile mindset, implementing collective leadership — a more fluid approach than the traditional top-down structure, and focusing on vertical development — advancing the ability to think strategically and systemically in complex situations.

2. Align with business strategy

Leadership development programs should support business objectives such as retaining talent, implementing change management strategies, or mitigating risk. Start by examining yearly and quarterly company-wide goals, and then consider which capabilities employees will need to execute them. Set well-defined goals for your programs and keep a regular pulse on their effectiveness. (More on this in #6).

3. Choose the right modality

Leadership development training comes in many forms, from one-on-one coaching to video-based e-learning. Before choosing a program, L&D leaders should consider which modality will best suit their learners. One approach that appeals to a diverse range of employees is microlearning. According to Forbes, microlearning is effective because it uses “spaced repetition, a proven retention-boosting method of breaking down learning topics into more manageable pieces.” 

Big Think+ uses microlearning to ensure content is easily accessible and engaging. Learners can watch short-form video lessons in between meetings or during a commute, and remote employees can tune in from home with ease. Check out this short clip from one of the leadership development courses available on Big Think+. “The Humanity of Leadership” course is led by world-renowned ethnographer and bestselling author Simon Sinek.

4. Tailor programs to the individual

Leadership can be a complex skill to hone, so programs offered should be customizable, not one-size-fits-all. There are universally relevant skills, such as emotional intelligence, building trust, influencing others, and fostering collaboration. But training programs should encompass a range of other capabilities that vary depending on an employee’s role in the organization. More specific skill sets include executive leadership, stakeholder relations, and communicating cross-culturally. Participants should be able to select the material that’s most relevant to their position, as well as positions they hope to hold in the future. 

5. Include coaching opportunities

Coaching has become a nearly $3 billion industry in the U.S., and for good reason — coaching opportunities can significantly impact employee engagement and productivity. A survey from the Human Capital Institute shows that 56% of organizations saw an increase in employee engagement after investing in coaching. Leadership training programs might include internal coaching, in which senior leaders counsel junior staff, or external coaching from leadership experts outside of the organization. Less formal mentorship opportunities are also beneficial for aspiring leaders. Studies show that employees who are mentored at work have a 72% retention rate and are five times more likely to advance in their pay grade. 

6. Evaluate the program

After implementing a leadership development program, L&D leaders should create a framework for evaluating success. The framework should include clear program objectives, a timeframe for evaluation, a data collection strategy, and performance metrics. Qualitative before-and-after surveys can help measure participants’ knowledge retention as well as the application of leadership skills in the months following the course. L&D leaders can also take advantage of digital tools like Qualtrics to monitor and improve leadership development offerings over time.

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7. Don’t overlook those who are ripe for advancement

According to leadership expert and Navy SEAL combat veteran Brent Gleeson, “Leadership development isn’t for everyone. Some employees in an organization are ready for it and some aren’t.” Oftentimes, top sales reps and subject matter experts get pushed into leadership roles because their expertise is mistaken for managerial or leadership promise. But the best potential leaders, according to Gleeson, are those who are passionate and have a desire to inspire others. So when it comes to choosing program participants, don’t overlook employees based on the length of their resumes. Create a fair system for determining program eligibility and articulate clear, equitable steps for applying.

A final note

To enact lasting change, learning programs must be more than a rundown of tips and tricks. The best leadership development programs encourage employees to fundamentally shift their mindsets in order to change long-held behaviors. For L&D leaders, this means creating a meaningful space for employees to deliberately explore their assumptions and feelings about what it means to be a leader. 

With a clearer understanding of what it truly takes to be a leader, employees in supervisory positions will be better equipped to handle the everyday responsibilities and challenges that come with leading the pack. 

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