How and Why to Run a Leadership Development Program

7 min read
Why do you need a leadership development program? Well, because a 2017 survey showed 93% of managers felt they lacked the necessary training to do their jobs well. And what's more, managers account for some 70% of variance in employee engagement, so having great managers helps drive engagement across the organisation. So whether it's preparing the next generation of leaders, or helping your current executives to do better, a leadership development program is an important part of any performance management system. Here are more reasons to launch one and how to do it.

Why run a leadership development program?

  • Reduce attrition 55% of managers or employees in the US (i.e. a rung below leadership level) are considering other opportunities; demonstrating career growth opportunities helps you retain top talent
  • Retention – 86% of people who say they have a great deal of opportunity for career progression say they’ll stay at their company
  • Engagement – globally, 2 in 5 are dissatisfied at work, while over 50% of US employees are ‘not engaged’; developing leaders is one way of improving engagement
  • Growth – with only 1 out of 3 leaders looking for a new job, how do you ensure leaders don’t stagnate at your company? How do you promote continuous personal development?
  • Continuity – an LDP helps you instill your company’s values in the next generation of leaders, whether it be formal succession planning or more general
  • Talent attraction – if only 1 in 3 leaders are actively looking for a job opportunity, your talent pool is much smaller; you need to differentiate yourself by offering something to leaders other rivals don’t

To sum it up, a leadership development program is an essential part of the employee experience.

How to set up a leadership development program

Step 1: Set objectives and understand your company’s priorities

No two organisations are the same, which means your reason for launching a leadership development program will be unique. It’ll depend on where your company is right now and where it sees itself in the future:

  • Are you in growth mode? You need leaders with drive, ambition and great ideas for advancing the company
  • Are you in cost-cutting mode? You need leaders who are flexible, resourceful and able to communicate effectively
  • Are you struggling with retention and engagement? You need leaders who inspire, communicate effectively and can drive behavioural changes

Step 2: Define leadership and its main qualities

Once you understand your company’s current priorities, you can define what leadership means to your organisation and what it will look like in practice.

Leadership roles are typically defined as those that are integral to a company executing on its grander strategies. Whether that be inspiring team members, growing awareness in the market, or helping employees succeed. You may limit your focus to those with formal leadership roles, or look further afield to those who have a lot of influence but not the corresponding job title.

Consult your leaders and high potentials, too. Publish a short survey asking them what they consider important leadership qualities for the company to succeed.

However, don’t just rely on expertise within your current leadership group. This can lead to the same ideas, behaviours and qualities circulating again and again, and can prevent an organisation from growing. This is especially true in older organisations, where there can be a tendency to do things ‘as we’ve always done’ and hire people ‘who fit in’.

Step 3: Audit your current leadership against the criteria

Once you’ve agreed on a set of leadership qualities, you can compare your current crop of leaders against them.

One way to assess your current leaders is to run 360 Feedback reviews. This helps you get a rounder picture of whether they’re demonstrating leadership qualities to their peers, direct reports and own managers. It’s why more than 85% of all Fortune 500 companies use 360 Feedback.

However, you should compare leaders’ scores against the top 10% surveyed, or a high industry benchmark, in order for leaders to feel motivated to go further. By just looking at average scores, there’s a risk leaders might be lulled into thinking they don’t need to do very much to succeed.

Step 4: Plan and implement a wider leadership development program

Even after 30 years, the most popular structure for leadership development programs remains the 70-20-10 rule. That is:

  • 70% on-the-job learning, with challenging assignments and opportunities
  • 20% mentoring, where other leaders share their expertise
  • 10% training

Most business schools agree this mix of learning methodologies matches the mindset of most leaders, who’d prefer autonomy and responsibility over sitting in a classroom learning how to lead. Experiences can help them form new ideas and strategies themselves, and allow them to test them in the wild.

For high potential leaders, or those early in their careers, you could consider rotational programs. This is where employees spend time with different departments, learning a variety of leadership skills and getting a better understanding of how the business units link together and collaborate.

You should involve your most visionary leaders in the process of building trainings and experiences. They’re the ones most able to articulate where the company should be in 5, 10 or 20 years, and help the next crop of leaders succeed within that framework.

Step 5: Create personal development plans with leaders

For your current crop of leaders, you could create personal development plans, tailored to the specific qualities they need in their role and their current strengths and weaknesses. These plans should facilitate personal growth, not be seen as corrective measures.

If you’re lucky to have extremely talented leaders, emphasise the importance of building on strengths. Standing still means getting overtaken at some point, so leaders should focus on remaining at the top of their field and being a beacon for other employees in their organisation.

Step 6: Monitor and measure

Like any program, you need to measure its effectiveness and the ROI. But also remember that for leaders, autonomy and trust are two of the key drivers to job satisfaction. So how do you meld the two requirements of trusting leaders and monitoring their progress?

One way of doing it is having the most respected leaders in the company act as mentors, giving advice and feedback on the progress of more junior leaders. All with the subtext that one day the more junior leader could be a mentor themselves.

You can also run more regular 360 Feedback surveys to understand how the leader is developing in the eyes of their colleagues. Do direct reports notice a difference? Do peers recognise emerging leadership qualities?


READ NEXT: Using 360 Reviews for Leadership Development