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5 ways to design and improve successful leadership development programs

13 min read
The workplace is ever-changing, and leaders must develop skills to keep up. Read on to find out how to effectively run a leadership development program.


What are leadership development programs?

You want the people you carefully selected and recruited to grow in their careers and progress through your organization. Effective leadership development programs (LDPs) provide the opportunity and guidance so employees—especially those in leadership positions— can develop the skills they need to  manage their careers, lead others to success, and contribute great work to the organization.

If a rising tide lifts all boats, then creating a leadership development program benefits everyone. Great leaders drive higher team engagement and produce better business results. This means leadership development is an essential part of employee experience.

eBook: Develop your leaders through 360 degree feedback

Why run a leadership development program?

Research has found that 45% of managers felt they lacked the necessary confidence to help employees develop necessary skills. And what’s more, managers account for some 70% of variance in employee engagement. This means that having great managers helps drive engagement across the organization, and having poor ones drives disengagement.

A good LDP helps to:

  • Reduce attrition: 60% of employees in the US left their jobs, or considered leaving because they disliked their direct managers; demonstrating that good leaders help you retain top talent.
  • Increase retention: 57% of people said they needed to leave their current companies to advance their careers; with an effective leadership development program, they are less inclined to leave.
  • Increase engagement: globally, 85% of people are dissatisfied at work, while over 60% of US employees are ‘not engaged’; developing leaders is one way of improving engagement.
  • Promote continuous personal growth: with only 1 out of 3 leaders looking for a new job, how do you ensure they don’t stagnate at your company?
  • Ensure 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 training.
  • Attract talent: if only 1 in 3 leaders are actively looking for a job opportunity, your potential talent pool is much smaller; you need to differentiate yourself by offering something to leaders that rivals don’t.

Who should attend a leadership development program?

  • Current managers who need to keep up in a fast-paced business environment.
  • People recently promoted to management positions.
  • People with new leadership responsibilities perhaps because of expansion, merger, or reorganization.
  • People facing new challenges managing staff, the pace of change, or technology.
  • Aspiring managers who demonstrate potential.
  • Young professionals in the early stages of their career – to gain a deeper understanding of a business, while developing their leadership skills, to be fast-tracked to a management role.

Ingredients for a successful leadership development program

LDPs have come in for some criticism that many of them don’t lead to better organizational performance. ‘One size fits all’ training that doesn’t resonate, explanation over experience, misunderstood company culture, and a lack of progress measurement can all lead to bewilderment, and disengagement with people soon reverting to their old, familiar ways of doing things.

LDPs only really work with a holistic, company-wide approach:

  • The leadership team aligned to a clear, inspiring strategy and set of values.
  • The gathering of unvarnished employee feedback data about barriers to effectiveness and performance, including senior management’s behaviors.
  • A team redesign of how it is organized, its management systems, and practices to address those issues revealed by feedback data.
  • A willing HR, offering consulting and coaching to help employees learn on the job and embrace the new attitudes and behaviors required of them.
  • Corporate training programs that properly support this change agenda. 

eBook: Develop your leaders through 360 degree feedback

How to set up an effective leadership development program

 1.    Set objectives and understand your company’s priorities

No two organizations 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 behavioral changes.

Understanding your company’s priorities and how they align with the capability and training needs of your leaders will allow for greater opportunities to target these needs within the context of your program.

2. Define leadership and its main qualities

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

Leadership roles are typically defined as those that are integral to a company, whether that’s inspiring team members, growing brand awareness, 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 potential leaders, too. Send a short survey asking them what they consider to be 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, behaviors, and qualities circulating again and again, and can prevent an organization from growing. This is especially true in older organizations, where there can be a tendency to do things ‘as we’ve always done’ and hire people ‘who fit in’.

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 a 360 Development program. These help you get a fuller 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 Development.

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 that leaders might be lulled into thinking they don’t need to do very much to succeed.

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, that challenges and stretches them

Most business schools agree that 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. However, not all experiences are created equally.

It’s important to identify the experiences that offer the most learning. This should be based on their individual needs.

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 intersect and collaborate.

You should also consider involving your senior leaders in the process of building training and experiences, relying on them to articulate where the company should be in 5, 10, or 20 years, and outlining how leaders succeed within that framework.

5. Create personal development plans with leaders

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

If you’re lucky to have talented leaders, emphasize 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 organization.

How to measure the results of a leadership development program

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 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 leverage 360 feedback to understand how the leader is developing in the eyes of their colleagues. Do direct reports notice a difference? Do peers recognize emerging leadership qualities?

It’s crucial that feedback is actioned. An employee needs to be given resources to help them if they’re given poor feedback in a particular area.

A lack of follow-up around feedback means that the process becomes pointless. It will also make employees apathetic about future attempts to carry out effective 360s.

Top leadership skills to teach in a development program

Many organizations turn to Qualtrics asking where to start when it comes to developing a world-class employee experience program. The best-case scenario involves developing leadership competencies that reflect the unique industry, business, and needs of your organization. If your organization hasn’t codified those leadership competencies the following are common attributes to focus on:

  • Goal-setting and planning: Establishing small and large goals that contribute to the greater good of the organization. Assess the resources in your team, set realistic goals based on those resources and assign tasks to individuals so that everyone is working towards those goals.
  • Communication: It’s essential to be able to write, listen, speak and present information in a clear and efficient way, and to determine the best way of communicating for specific messages, e.g. email versus a video conference meeting.
  • Negotiation: By mastering how to be strong influencers and fair negotiators, leaders will return to their teams knowing that it is not about power, but about the best influence on employees to drive results.
  • Accountability: Being able to define accountabilities and rigorously holding direct reports to their commitments, a leader helps everyone know where they stand to produce the results they need.
  • Delegation: This is the ability to assign tasks to others, including tasks a leader needs help with completing. When you delegate effectively, you can choose the best team member for the task and support them with clear instructions.
  • Dependability: This sets the standard of behavior and work ethic, such as kindness or punctuality, that others depend on you to maintain in the workplace. Others can trust dependable people to complete a task correctly and on time, and help where help is needed.
  • Integrity: covers being honest and sticking to your moral code, regardless of the pressure you’re under, and having accountability for your actions or mistakes. A good leader may even hold themselves accountable for their team’s errors or failures.  People with integrity lead by example and encourage their team members also to hold themselves accountable for goals, actions and mistakes.
  • Decisiveness: The ability to make quick, educated and high-quality decisions, even under pressure. Decisive leaders understand the options and consequences of a decision. Decisiveness also involves having in-depth industry knowledge and experience, so this a skill to be developed over time.
  • Motivation: Being able to motivate others convinces team members to complete tasks, reach goals and develop their own careers. Self-motivation is also important for finishing your own work, reaching your own objectives and leading by example.
  • Conflict management: The ability to mediate between parties who have disagreements about a topic or situation. You use conflict management to understand each side’s argument, help to research all arguments, mediate a discussion between the parties and move towards a compromise.
  • Team building: This skill identifies strengths and areas for improvement in each team member to create strong teams with compatible personalities and the required skills. Team building also involves encouraging collaboration and support through training and bonding activities that help teams get to know each other better as professionals.

Find out everything you need to know about 360 Development