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Leadership Development Programs: What Are They And Why Do You Need One?

Thinking about implementing a Leadership Development Program in your organization? 

To meet the demands of the ever-changing business environment, effective leaders must acquire the necessary skills to keep up.

A Leadership Development Program brings value to an organization by preparing the next set of leaders for the challenges they will inevitably face.

In this article, I will: 

  • Define Leadership Development Programs and how they benefit organizations
  • Offer insight into how to choose one for your organization
  • Detail considerations for developing your own
  • Briefly explore how organizations decide whether to outsource their development programs or create one in-house.

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Once you understand the value of having a leadership development program, you can choose one that supports your organization's ability to acquire top talent. 

You will also enhance employee engagement and productivity, motivate them to stay, and, ultimately, bolster your company's bottom line.

What Is A Leadership Development Program?

A leadership development program is a way of ensuring current and future leaders have the necessary skills to meet current and future business needs. 

Primarily, these programs have served as a way for organizations to ensure their internal talent was equipped to take on senior leadership roles in case of preparation for a departure.

But this is a singular and short-term use of a leadership development program. There are many other benefits of leadership development programs that support organizational objectives beyond succession planning.

They all center around the development of leadership skills and competencies. Effective leadership development programs benefit current employees, current leaders, emerging leaders, and the organization at large.

So what are the kinds of skills one would expect to learn in a leadership development program? 

What Skills Would You Expect To Acquire In A Leadership Development Program?

Before we dig into some of the specific kinds of skills you would hope to learn in a leadership development program, let us first examine two broad conceptualizations of leadership: 

  • Positional leadership
  • Personal Leadership 

Positional leadership is precisely what it sounds like. 

It can be thought of as a more traditional way of looking at organizational authority and can be thought of in terms of: "Who holds the most power?"

This is the kind of leadership we think about when thinking of people who possess and wield power due to their status or title. But, generally speaking, people do not take well to being spoken down to, bossed around, or otherwise made to feel like they are being mistreated.

Instead, we are far more receptive to personal leadership, which comes from the behaviors these leaders exhibit, the values they espouse and embody, and the trust they build between people using their leadership skills.

Personal leadership is more about influence than reliance on external sources of power or authority.

Leadership development focuses on equipping current and future leaders with personal leadership skills so that they can: 

  • More effectively understand the environment in which their organization operates
  • Effectively engage, inspire, and empower the people within their organizations
  • Deftly navigate the ever-changing demands of the market, one’s customers, and one’s other key stakeholders.

This all being the case, then, what personal leadership skills would one expect to learn and practice as part of a leadership development program?

See the table below for a broad list of competencies, sub-skills, and examples/situations of how/where a leader might deploy these skills that you would reasonably expect to learn about and practice in a leadership development program. 

There's an important caveat to keep in mind below the table as we reflect on these.

Competency Area Sub-skills Examples
Communication
  • Active listening
  • Effective communication
  • Understanding of non-verbal cues
  • Questioning
  • Mediating a conflict between other employees or leaders
  • Giving a speech
  • Facilitating training
  • Interviewing prospective candidates for a job
  • Problem-solving
  • Analysis
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation
  • Analyzing trends in data over time
  • Reviewing market/industry data to ensure prices are in line with relevant competitors
  • Troubleshooting faulty reporting and recognizing data is missing
  • Ability to inspire
  • Approachability
    Storytelling
  • Confidence
  • Influence
  • Maintaining an open-door policy for all employees
  • Launching a new product line
  • Announcing a significant change in strategy in pursuit of the original mission
  • Give and receive feedback
  • Active listening
  • Paraphrasing
  • Questioning
  • Ability to clarify
  • Delivering an annual performance appraisal
  • Disciplining an employee for poor performance
  • Being a recipient of 360-degree feedback
  • Set and measure progress towards goals
  • Understand/interpret strategy
  • Identify milestones
  • Gain Consensus
  • Influence/execution through others
  • Understand company mission, values, and customer-base
  • Department meeting to discuss how the department will support company goals through its actions and results
  • Weekly progress reports on a long-term project
  • *Though most of the skills in the following list will show up in some capacity in any leadership development program, they may show up differently depending on the level of leadership an individual is being prepared for.

    Leadership Development Program Benefits

    As I said, leadership development programs benefit your organization beyond succession planning (but that’s still part of it). 

    I’ll now briefly outline the benefits a good leadership development program can bring to your business.

    Succession planning, workforce management, and business continuity

    One practical use of a leadership development program is to ensure that there are employees well-equipped to replace senior leaders when they leave.

    Some organizations have very comprehensive development programs to address leadership-based skills gaps.

    Senior leaders and executives, for example, might enter an executive leadership development program, or get involved with executive education efforts, to support their development into the highest levels of leadership.

    Typically, these are advanced leadership development programs reserved for high-performing director-level-and-above leaders. They’ll likely focus on specific leadership skills that are more relevant for leaders required to lead at a more strategic level.

    More junior, yet high-performing, employees might engage in ongoing professional development efforts and continuing education to acquire specific leadership skills. Or they’ll adopt distinct leadership styles consistent with the activities they will be engaged with in their next role.

    Some organizations even use leadership development programs that assess new hires or other non-managerial employees who show promise as potential leaders in the future. These early employee life cycle development programs may assess team members’ leadership potential and, coupled with career growth plans, help develop these employees into effective leaders in their own right.

    How does this relate to succession planning, workforce management, and business continuity?

    Should a critical member of management suddenly leave at any of these leadership levels, there should be at least a handful of options from which a hiring manager can interview or choose to succeed the newly departed former manager.

    For example, if a very senior-level leader within an organization decides to take on a new role at another organization, an effective leadership development program should produce a viable candidate, or set of candidates, to replace that senior leader. 

    This ensures that the business continues to operate normally with minimal distraction, for there also should have been a middle-level manager competent enough to step into this new role.

    One can truly see the value of a leadership development plan on succession planning, workforce planning, and business continuity when the now-promoted middle manager's role must also be filled.

    An effective development program will have also produced at least one candidate to replace the newly promoted manager. And so on, until all critical roles have been satisfactorily filled by qualified candidates already familiar with the organization. 

    This example shows how effective leadership development programs support a healthy talent pipeline, promote succession planning, and secure business continuity.

    This benefits the organization, but it also helps all who have been part of the various levels of leadership training programs throughout the organization.

    Facilitating the attraction, engagement, performance, and retention of employees

    Another set of benefits that emerge from adopting a leadership development program involves improving the employee experience throughout the main parts of the employee lifecycle. 

    The employee life cycle is generally made up of 5 broad components:

    1. Staffing—every step between attracting top talent, recruiting them to apply, and then selecting those who will eventually join the organization)
    2. Onboarding—the way by which new hires assimilate into their new organization's culture, are made aware of performance expectations, and go through a "ramp-up" period through which they learn how to use the different tools, programs, processes, etc. that enable them to perform their jobs.
    3. (Ongoing) Development —this ongoing stage, moving past the official onboarding stage, never really ceases unless an individual employee chooses to stop developing. In this phase, employees begin to build skills, take on additional responsibilities, and tackle growth opportunities both within their roles and outside (including if they would like to promote from within the organization).
    4. Retention—Retention is concerned with crafting a great employee experience, of which training and development is a part.
    5. Exit—This is where, for whatever reason, the employee parts ways with the organization. This may be due to retirement, the choice to pursue another opportunity elsewhere, inspired by a life change, or termination.

    Without going into too much depth about the employee life cycle, you can imagine this cycle operating chronologically with different phases overlapping.

    The onboarding phase overlaps with the development phase in that the new team member is learning how to perform their roles to the best of their abilities so they may contribute. 

    The development phase also relates to the retention phase since opportunities for learning, growth, and development are common reasons why some employees choose to leave their employers.

    Employees are more likely to stay with their organizations (barring retirement, significant life changes, etc.) when they have and know they have opportunities to continue learning new skills, applying them in new ways, and advancing along their respective career journeys—whether that journey takes them up a ladder or they follow another career path.

    This is what we mean by employee engagement: highly engaged employees are more likely to have positive experiences throughout their employee lifecycle that encourage them to stay with that organization.

    This is where leadership development programs once again demonstrate their value. 

    Employees eager to grow within their organizations and continue building skills, including their leadership ability, are more likely to be attracted to, mature with, and stay with organizations with robust leadership development programs.

    Reduced turnover

    A well-publicized statistic refers to the percentage of employees who leave their organizations because of their leaders.

    According to a study by Randstad US, 60% of respondents to the survey indicated that they had either left or considered leaving their jobs when they didn't like their direct supervisors.

    That same study found that 58% of respondents said their companies did not have enough (or the right kind of) growth opportunities for those folks to stay longer. 

    These are staggering numbers. They reflect that more than one out of every two individuals studied left, or considered leaving, because they disliked their manager. Nearly the same felt that their organizations were not satisfied with the growth opportunities within their organizations.

    Fortunately, as we have continued to see, the use of effective leadership development programs might address the two issues highlighted by that survey. 

    Effective leadership development programs should include curricula aimed at equipping leaders with skills that help them build better relationships with their teams (i.e., active listening, demonstrating empathy, and positive communication). 

    Leaders who demonstrate these skills are less likely to be received poorly, which will likely reduce the number of people who would leave based on their dislike of their boss.

    As we have already seen, effective leadership programs offer ways by which folks can acquire new skills along their career journey and hopefully progress such that they remain engaged in their ongoing learning endeavor.

    In short, it is clear why and how effective leadership development programs are worth the investment because they:

    • Promote business continuity when a manager leaves the organization since they prepare replacements
    • Increase the likelihood of talented individuals wanting to join the organization
    • Increase the possibility that gifted individuals will want to stay with the organization over time
    • Decrease turnover and its associated financial costs by promoting positive relations between manager and employee, increasing employee engagement and offering employees incentives to stay in virtue of providing them new skills and opportunities for advancement.

    We can now all agree that leadership development programs, and more general training and development programs, are must-haves for any organization interested in harnessing the full potential of its people.

    Let us now explore how one might choose a leadership program and walk through considerations that an organization should outsource their program or build one in-house.

    How To Choose A Leadership Development Program?

    Considering all of the benefits we have reviewed to this point, justifying the need for organizations to have a leadership development program, it should come as no surprise that, at least as of late 2019, leadership development itself is a $366 Billion industry. 

    how to choose a leadership development program graphic

    As noted in Forbes, organizations understand the importance of leadership and the individual impact leaders have on their organizations. For example, it makes sense for high-growth organizations to focus on enhancing their talent capabilities to sustain competitive advantage.

    However, according to research from consulting firm McKinsey, most of these programs fail to deliver the results they set out to achieve. $366 billion is an extraordinary amount of money to pay for programs that fail to do what they are meant to.

    Why?

    In short, McKinsey listed four factors contributing to this misalignment:

    1. Failure to account for context
    2. Inability to move from reflection to action
    3. Failure to account for organizational culture and the underlying mindsets of the people leadership training is made to target
    4. Failure to measure a return on investment for these programs.

    Given the everyday activity organizations go through, these four seemingly simple factors are incredibly challenging to account for; this explains why organizations fail to do these things and get their money's worth.

    Fortunately, organizations do not have to have all the answers, and they do not have to build them all in-house.

    A myriad of online leadership development programs accounts for McKinsey's four factors that enable organizations to focus on what they do best, while reaping the benefits of a robust leadership development program.

    Elements Of An Effective Leadership Development Program

    What are the must-have characteristics of a leadership development program?

    In short, they will largely depend on your organization’s specific business strategy and its leadership skill needs—current and future. 

    To help you narrow down the core characteristics you should look for, consider the following questions and considerations: 

    • What skills do your employees and leaders need now and in the future to execute your company’s business strategy?
      • Identify the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) your people need now and will likely need, based on your longer-term goals. List them out.
    • To what extent does your organization already possess and teach these KSAOs?
      • Map out where within your organization these KSAOs are already present, where they are lacking, and where and when they will likely be needed in the future. Performing this kind of gap analysis at the individual, team, and organizational level gives you an idea of who will need what skills and when, enabling you to prepare for the best way to teach these skills at the right time.
    • Based on the analysis so far, what leadership development programs will support your people in acquiring these skills (whether developed in-house or purchased)?
      • This is where you begin to either find the leadership development program that meets your needs or begin building and customizing your own in preparation for the future.

    Here’s a framework you might use to guide you through this analysis. Let’s call it the SPA Analysis where each letter represents KSAO: 

    • Specification
    • Possession
    • Acquisition
    spa analysis graphic

    Here is a sample visual using the SPA Analysis framework to help you answer the questions above followed by a list of common elements of successful leadership development programs:

    Competencies are often grouped into categories (i.e., Self Leadership, Team Leadership, Business Management) and some of the most common ones taught in leadership development programs include: 

    Other items to look for in an effective leadership development program include: 

    • Formal mentorship programs
    • On-the-job opportunities to practice skills developed in leadership development program
    • Programs that meet organization-specific learning styles and environment (e.g., classroom learning considerations for hybrid and remote teams)
    • Tailored development for different leaders at different leadership levels (i.e., entry-level supervisor development offerings versus executive-level development offerings)

    Ready for a place to start? 

    Check out the Best Leadership Development Programs according to People Managing People’s own Tim Reitsma. 

    In his article, he offers 

    • His rankings of the leadership development programs he reviewed
    • A description of how he evaluated these programs
    • Highlights of their respective key features
    •  A thorough overview of each of the 10 programs that made the list

    Be sure to check it out to get the full scoop!

    If you would like to try your hand at developing a leadership development program in-house, tailor-made for your organization and team, please read on for ideas on how you could approach this.

    How To Create Your Own Leadership Development Program

    Perhaps none of the leadership development programs you've researched meet your organization's strategic needs or will sufficiently prepare the leaders to face the unique challenges before them.

    In cases like these, sometimes the best way to ensure your organization is equipped with the necessary (but rare) skills to carry your organization into the future is to create a program that fosters them yourself.

    Some successful companies have built their own leadership institutes, universities, and other development programs to ensure their current and future leaders are prepared to assume a given leadership role and address a set of leadership challenges.

    Companies known for their leadership development programs include Disney (further discussed below), Apple (and its secretive university, Amazon, and Deloitte

    Large companies like the ones listed have the resources to fund these programs. Typically, they have specialized teams dedicated to effectively managing these development programs. These teams are usually led by a program manager (or equivalent) and facilitators, and they may feature leaders from within the company in question.

    Disney Insitute, for example, offers an array of onsite and online courses for leaders at every level. The Institute provides opportunities for experiential learning, coaching, creative leadership, and other leadership areas.  

    Keeping your organization’s mission, values, strategy, and key objectives in mind, here are several considerations to consider in developing your own leadership training program: 

    • The program’s learning objectives
    • The provision of the right skills for the right leader
    •  A structured enough program to cover the desired areas
    • A program that effectively transfers leadership skills that, in turn, affect leadership behaviors and overall organizational outcomes

    Here is a simple five-step guide to getting your program up and running to set one up within your organization.

    Step 1: Align company objectives with those of the leadership development program

    Again, your leadership development program must align with your organization's over-arching strategy. Leaders operating within different corporate cultures will need to leverage other leadership skills.

    Leadership development programs, then, must account for organizational strategy and objectives and respond to shifts to ensure leaders are taught the appropriate skills for the situation.

    For example, suppose your organization is engaged in a hyper-growth strategy. In that case, leaders in a growing organization will need skills that allow them to propel the organization forward, facilitate innovation, and inspire stakeholders (internal and external) to continue pursuing the mission.

    Suppose, instead, your organization requires stabilization. In that case, leaders, in turn, will need to be well-equipped to find creative ways to maintain employee engagement without making substantial changes that would disrupt the status quo.

    Lastly, if your organization must double down on a retrenchment or turnaround strategy, its leaders must deeply understand the organization's main competency and value proposition to decide how to creatively cut costs, adapt to market changes with agility, and communicate effectively and frequently with their stakeholders.

    Step 2: Exemplify leadership within the organization

    Following Step 1, all organization members ought to understand what leadership will look like based on the organization's current and near-future projections.

    Leaders at all levels must understand their managerial roles and act accordingly to support the needed leadership style that aligns with the company's strategy. As described in Step 1, leaders throughout the organization will need to be equipped with the relevant skills that support the organization's current reality.

    Your leadership development program must then reskill or upskill existing and prospective leaders across all levels with the appropriate skills to ensure consistency with the needed leadership behaviors.

    Step 3: Evaluate your organization’s leadership behaviors

    Once leadership behaviors have been aligned with organizational strategy, and the desired leadership behaviors have been exemplified, leaders (or prospective ones) can be evaluated based on their behaviors.

    This, in turn, offers data on leadership skill gaps, and these insights can, in turn, be used to address these leadership skill gaps with the specific leaders in need of reskilling.

    An effective way to identify deviations from desirable leadership behaviors (indicating skill deficiency) is to gather 360-degree feedback from relevant sources that can accurately speak to a given leader's actual leadership behaviors.

    The benefit of conducting such a feedback survey on leaders involves the input from various sources that interact with the leader in question—from direct reports, peers, managers, and their perceptions of their performance.

    If you are interested in learning more about 360-degree or multisource feedback and its benefits, learn more by reviewing my article here.

    Step 4: Expand your program

    According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an effective to learn new leadership skills is by following their 70-20-10 rule.

    In short, this rule outlines the three main kinds of experiences leaders need to learn and develop and the ratio of time leaders should spend on each of the three types. 

    • 70% of effective leadership development stems from addressing on-the-job challenges, assignments, and problems.
    • 20% of effective leadership development stems from learning through developmental relationships (such as from mentors or more senior leaders sharing their experiences).
    • 10% of effective leadership development stems from completing coursework and intentionally designed training to stretch leaders' thinking.

    This rule is consistent with adult learning theory (andragogy). Adult learners, in this case, adult leaders, can generally be expected to learn more effectively when they actively work to overcome challenges.

    This, in turn, is also consistent with the level of autonomy leaders come to expect as opposed to traditional, classroom-bound training that is more likely to support child learning. The 10% of leadership development that comes from traditional learning methods is not to be discounted, however.

    The CCL discovered an amplifier effect related to the 10% of coursework and training. According to their research, well-designed course materials serve to clarify, support, and bolster the other 90% of learning from experience and mentor figures.

    Based on this research on how leaders learn best, learning development programs can be tailored accordingly to maximize the amount retained. Ideally, development programs would also consider individual leader learning needs, given our specific learning styles.

    For example, prospective or new leaders can be offered learning opportunities through which they rotate between different departments within an organization. 

    This has the dual benefit of exposing these leaders to a wider variety of leadership skills used between different departments while also offering learners a more holistic and complete view of the business.

    In this step, it is also essential that senior leaders remain involved in leadership development initiatives.

    One practical way they can contribute involves leveraging their experiences to express their thoughts on how the organization might evolve. This also allows them to suggest how leaders and leadership development programs might adapt accordingly.

    Step 5: Co-create development plans with all leaders

    Leadership development does not happen in a vacuum, so development programs should involve their participants and alumni as much as possible.

    Every leader should have a personalized development plan detailing the leadership qualities they need to be successful in their current roles.

    Their plans should also detail their current strength or weakness concerning the skill in question, and include actionable steps that help them acquire and sharpen their leadership skills throughout their career, maintaining an eye on their next potential step.

    Wrapping Up

    Leadership development programs come in all shapes and sizes. They provide future leaders with the hard and soft skills required to move the organization forward.

    Check out some of the links below for more on leadership and leadership development:

    By Tony Tijerino

    Tony is a certified HR leader with nearly 7 years of HR management, training and development, and coaching experience. He is also a people and culture content creator, community activist, and consultant dedicated to life-long learning, growth, and the pursuit of personal excellence. Tony possesses an MS in HR Management from Florida International University and has worked in a variety of HR leadership roles for several of the world's most respected organizations. He aspires to share his thoughts and insights related to HR, the nature of work, leadership, and the importance of identifying and pursuing one's personal sources of meaning and satisfaction. Tony's hope is that his writing elicits interesting questions, stimulates conversation, and inspires others to share their stories, strengths, and brightest selves with the world.

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