Creating Better Workplaces with Leadership Development Programs By Steve Dion
The business press is filled with scary-sounding words and slightly confusing phrases used to describe today’s workplace. Toxic cultures, the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, and hybrid work, to name just a few. How are these trends impacting employees? And what are the leaders of organizations doing to create healthier workplaces that will attract and retain the best employees? Several of today’s most successful organizations are creating or expanding their leadership development programs to attract and retain talented employees. Let’s take a closer look at these leadership development programs.
What is a Leadership Development Program?
Not to be confused with training classes presented individually or as a set, a Leadership Development Program is a comprehensive talent development effort that provides rich, targeted skill development to support individual and organizational growth, culture evolution, and leader skill acquisition and retention for a targeted segment of an organization.
The goal is to help participants develop leadership skills and knowledge, provide preparation for next-level positions, and expand business knowledge and insight. Through a combination of self-paced study, instructor-led learning conducted virtual or in the classroom, self-, and 360 assessments, and individual coaching, a Leadership Development Program provides a path for the organization’s future leaders to excel in their current roles and beyond.
Programs are tailored to the organization’s business needs and are typically administered in a partnership between the leadership development provider and the organization. The following are typical program elements that can be utilized:
- Relevant, Challenging Curriculum
- Engaging Facilitation
- Executive Participation
- Manager Involvement
- Cohort Based
- Participant Presentations
- Peer Round Tables
- Pre-Post Surveys to Measure Results
- Destination Meeting Places
- Facility Tours
- Action Learning Projects
- Executive Personal Storytelling
- One-on-One Coaching
- Self-Paced Learning
- Enrichment Activities
- White Papers
- Discussion Boards
- Blog Posts
- Personality and 360 Assessments
- Individual Development Planning
- Clearly Defined Expectations
- Leadership Manifestos
When developing a program, the following question will need to be thoroughly explored:
- How many classroom or virtual learning days can the organization/ budget support?
- Is this a program focused exclusively on high-potential leaders, or is it for any specific organizational-level participants?
- Are there specific organizational efforts to tie this program to, such as supporting administrative competencies, long-term company initiatives, global platforms, or functional succession?
- What level of commitment can the organization expect to obtain from the participants, leaders, and management for this program (time from work, cost, executive commitment)
- Will the organization be able to obtain the resources to engage in individual coaching, and how will participants respond to coaching?
- What past experiences have participants had regarding training and self-assessments, and how can this program build upon them?
- Are there any challenges with having participants complete a 360 assessment?
- How will the organization select program participants in a way that creates organizational support and buy-in?
- How long will the program run, and what cadence of program activities will fit into the participants’ work schedule?
- When selecting workshop days, are there any business, country, or religious holidays to work around?
- Are there any language barriers?
- How will the availability of the program be communicated to participants and others to ensure it is perceived equitably and value to the organization?
Organizations can expect the following results from a strong leadership development program:
- A clear understanding of what it means to lead well at your company and an expanded leadership mindset among participants
- New knowledge, skills, and abilities shared by a critical group of leaders
- New effective habits formed for leading self, work, and others
- Expanded understanding of other business functions, units, or locations within your company
- New momentum to move the culture forward in targeted ways
- Accelerated development of high-potential leaders toward a defined career target
- Stronger affinity to the organization and increased retention of participants
- Increased understanding of the long-term focus of the business
- Validation that selected participants are truly high-potential leaders
- Cross-pollination of best-practice sharing and reduced silos between organizational units
- Motivated leaders engaging in new healthy and productive behaviors to lead with courage, conviction, and intentionality
Typically, a program will include 4 to 10 management training courses ordered to fit the learner audience. Popular topics can include, but aren’t limited to: accountability, resilience, leading change, communication, conflict management, decision-making, delegating, problem-solving, critical thinking, effective feedback, emotional intelligence, listening intelligence, time management, and strategic planning.
There are many logistical details and activities to administer during a leadership development program. It would be a travesty to frustrate the program participants by providing last-minute, incomplete, or inaccurate program information.
Project Management and governance are hallmarks of a successful program. In addition to skilled facilitators and coaches, there must be a dedicated person to manage the overall planning and execution of the program. They should utilize well-established project management software to track all project tasks, milestones, and deliverables.
Consider holding various governance activities, including periodic review meetings throughout the program, program kick-off meetings, and evaluation/feedback gathering (further explained in the Evaluate section below).
It is also crucial for the participants’ leaders to be completely supportive of the program and not only allow the participant to be away from work but be mindful of their workload to allow time to engage in the program fully.
Create a Roadmap
The roadmap below shows how a program can be organized to provide leadership learning touchpoints through various modalities. Be sure to craft a plan with regular communications and meetings to ensure the various components of the program flow seamlessly and allow for continuous feedback, adjusting when needed.
This approach is systematic and is broken into five areas that, when combined, create a learning experience consistent across the organization and meaningful for the learners.
When designing your leadership development program, follow these steps:
- Information gathering to understand learner profiles, client needs and expectations, company culture, logistics/schedules, and technical capabilities. This step may involve stakeholder interviews (including potential learners and their leaders), review of materials/outlines from previous or existing training programs, assessment of values/mission documents, etc. This allows us to involve the client in identifying clear learning goals—what will the learners know, do, and believe as a result of their learning experience? —that then shapes the program content.
- Mapping of learning goals to existing content to identify how our current solutions can match those goals, as well as any custom content that needs to be developed. This includes reviewing assessment options and other interventions, including individual or group coaching, use of capstone/final project assignments, cohort-based activities, etc.
- Materials creation includes slide decks, participant materials, and manager conversation guides (see Produce Training Materials section below).
- Content and materials revision based on client and pilot feedback will occur iteratively as the program is experienced and reviewed by learners and other stakeholders through all phases of the pilot process.
Materials for leadership development programs typically consist of a PowerPoint slide deck, participant guide or handouts, and manager conversation guides. All materials can accommodate any models, instructions, graphics, or other preferred or proprietary content that needs to be incorporated, as identified in the design process. In addition:
PowerPoint slides can be branded using organization brand colors/logos.
Participant guides and other learner takeaways, which can also be branded, are created as writable PDFs so learners can access and complete them electronically. Learner materials are made available through our LMS, with specific instructions for access and download, or are printed for in-person training sessions.
Manager conversation guides enable productive post-session dialogues between learners and their leaders. Leader support is a critical component of employee skill development and the sustainability of growth. Employees are more engaged and accountable when they know their leaders are tuned into their learning experience. Our manager conversation guides include prompts and questions to help leaders probe for detail about the employee’s training experience and start a discussion about how the employee should move forward post-training.
Other learner materials may include assessment reports. These are provided to individual learners through their LMS accounts for download and review or printed for in-person training sessions.
Facilitate and Train
Not just teaching leadership skills but practicing and applying them to be meaningful enough to find profound “ah-ha” moments requires adept and thoughtful facilitators who are well-versed in the leadership training space. Creating a protected and safe place where participants can be vulnerable, curious, and expansive in their thinking is an essential element that separates mediocre from exceptional programs.
Engaging a team of facilitators who specialize in working with leaders in these programs is critical. They should be able to take the classroom learning and apply it to the real-world situations your leaders are encountering in their roles. Skilled facilitators are adept at weaving the training topics, your organization’s culture, and other factors affecting people in their jobs to find learning moments for the entire class to experience together. Blending engaging facilitation with coaching skills and business experience makes for an exceptional program facilitator.
Powered by our Blended Learning Experience: For programs that take place in a virtual or combined in-person and virtual format, we recommend delivering as a blended learning event, supporting today’s virtual and hybrid work environments. It will be essential to secure a robust Learning Management System that allows learners to access materials, assessment results, and links to live training events and evaluations. This approach supports sustainability by enabling learners to revisit the content as needed and at their own pace.
Individual Leadership Coaching
Plan to provide participants with individualized leadership coaching to support the integration of learning experiences into their unique leadership situation. The objective of coaching in this context is to help participants apply the learning to their specific jobs and development needs. Program participants should be provided individual coaching sessions during the program (exact timing and logistics to be identified).
We recommend multiple coaching sessions for each participant to reinforce the learning within a leadership development program. The goal of each coaching session will be to:
- Aid in the application of the learning content presented to participants.
- Offer recommendations for the sustainability of learning.
- Provide insights regarding the self-assessment data and utilize it to impact job performance.
Linking leadership development to organizational objectives is vital. Identifying the leadership practices or behaviors most critical to achieving high-priority business objectives provides a context for analyzing leadership assessment data. Some examples of evaluation metrics for consideration to track program effectiveness are:
- Retention of program participants
- Long-term performance of program participants
- Number of participants promoted into leadership positions
- Number of leadership positions filled internally
- Achievement of diversity goals for leadership positions
- Results of participant evaluations (level 1 – 3 evaluations)
- Business goals met or exceeded due to the efforts of program participants
Expectations of Company Leadership
Active participation and leader engagement from the participant’s manager and executive management is essential for learning transfer, behavior change, and the program’s overall success.
Senior leaders can engage with participants in simple ways, such as:
- Assigning an executive team member to each participant and scheduling a cadence of individual check-in calls to discuss topics covered by the program.
- Appear at a training session by observing an hour of the actual training or participating in the group lunch.
- Attend evening social events and ask participants for examples of how they think differently, learn, and change.
- Lead by example regarding attendance of training sessions/coaching meetings and remove roadblocks that may present and prevent participants from attending.
- Most importantly, be a champion and verbal supporter of the leadership development program.
Expectations of Participants
- Attendance at all sessions is required.
- Bring a willing attitude and be prepared and open to learning. Be attentive, participative, and respectful.
- This is not a competition. It’s about learning.
- Be vulnerable, honest, and supportive of one another. All is confidential.
- Stay engaged. Turn off your phone and check messages only during breaks.
- Plan to work hard and participate. Completion of self-paced or enrichment assignments is expected.
- Take advantage of expanding your network and relationships. Actively meet all other program participants and get to know them professionally and personally.
- Practice what you learn.
When an organization follows this roadmap for creating a world-class leadership development program, it can expect to develop a high-functioning executive team and nurture employees who are more loyal and productive.
Steve Dion is the Founder and CEO of Dion Leadership, a leadership and organization development consulting firm based in Michigan. Steve has dedicated his career to understanding and improving organizational cultures by creating and deploying innovative leadership development programs, executive coaching, team effectiveness programs, and talent assessment. His passion for improving businesses by harnessing the power of their people has led him to work with many progressive, global Fortune 1000 organizations. Serving in corporate roles for over 25 years, Steve has leveraged this real-world experience as a CHRO and global business leader to provide leadership and organizational development consulting for over a decade. Steve is a member of Fast Company magazine’s Executive Board. He is a regular contributor to CEOWORLD magazine, Chief Executive, TrainingIndustry.com, ATD, and a guest contributor to HRCI’s HR Leads Business.