What is a leadership development program and why do you need one?

January 22, 2021 - 13 min read

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What is a leadership development program?

How leadership development programs benefit the entire organization

What elements are important in a leadership development program?

Maybe you’ve been invited to be part of a leadership development program, or maybe you’ve been tasked with developing leaders in your organization. Either way, the transition from an individual contributor or team member to leader is a big one. 

Leadership development is how organizations develop the talent they already have into the leaders they need for tomorrow. Companies don’t stay the same, even less so as the pace of change in business increases. Organizations need leaders with the skills to lead people, manage change, find new opportunities and execute strategy no matter how the business world changes. 

What is a leadership development program?

Leadership development programs have traditionally been how companies invest in internal growth and equip high-potential employees to take on senior positions in the organization in the near term. Yet what we think of as good leadership qualities and the associated skills has evolved. And, as companies realize the importance of agility, leadership development for a wider range of managers has become more important. 

What should you expect?

Though each company’s program may look slightly different, some common elements create a foundation for developing leadership skills. These include exposure and access to current management, individual groups for peer support and shared learning, and formalized mentorship. A clear structure helps employees grow while still balancing responsibilities for their current business. 

At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that growth and development as a leader is a personal journey and requires a personalized approach. A good leadership development program needs to be flexible to meet individuals where they are and provide the kind of support they need at the moment for the specific, often unpredictable, challenges they encounter. 

Context is crucial

Smart organizations know that leadership development needs to emphasize the skills and experiences that will be most relevant to their own organization in the near future. An evolving competitive landscape and changing business objectives mean that the challenges of today won’t be the same as those of tomorrow. 

A McKinsey article exploring why some leadership development programs fail reminds us that understanding context is crucial to understanding what type of leadership you need to develop. 

What types of challenges is the company likely to face? What will be the key skills the company needs from its leaders moving forward? If the company plans to grow through acquisitions or they’re aiming to onboard new clients or partners, for example, sales and negotiation skills might be two areas to double down on in the program. Increasingly, evidence shows that “soft” skills like communication and relationship-building or capabilities like empathy and compassion are most relevant to the challenges of leading through uncertainty and unpredictability.

How leadership development programs benefit the entire organization

Why should companies have a leadership development program? It’s clear that companies need to plan for leadership development to ensure that they always have capable people at the helm — especially those who’ve been with the company for a while and understand its inner workings. It’s also easier to grow your own leaders than to find someone with the right skills from the outside when the timing is tight. 

But it can be easy to forget that implementing a leadership development program has an outsize impact beyond its specific goal. The ripples benefit the company in multiple areas. 

  1. Improving the bottom-line

    Organizations with leadership development programs in place tend to see a boost in the bottom line. The financial impact stems from a variety of factors, one being simply that there are now more people in the company who are well-prepared to face business challenges and who can understand high-level strategy. 

    Secondly, you’ll be saving on turnover costs. When employees know that management has made an investment in them and that they not only have opportunities to grow but that there are available roles to grow into, they are more likely to stay. 

    Another factor that positively impacts company financials is increased productivity. Employees who feel nurtured and who can see a future for themselves at the company are much more likely to be engaged in their work, thereby motivating others toward increased productivity as well. 

  2. Attract, develop and retain talent

    A leadership development program is an attractive feature for companies looking to recruit. Changing organizations to get the growth you need is frustrating and time-consuming, and knowing that an organization will invest in its future leaders makes it a much more appealing target for candidates. 

    For similar reasons, organizations can also expect improved retention. Many employees leave their jobs because they feel as though they’re not learning anything new, or, if they are, they don’t have the opportunity to move into a position where they can apply that knowledge. A leadership development program is an official commitment to help top-tier employees not only grow their skill sets but also help them find new roles within the company to exercise these skills with a long-term influence. 

  3. Drive strategy execution

    Mastering strategic execution should be a key component of any leadership development program. Not only will an organization have more bright workers capable of transforming goals into action, but they’ll also develop team members skilled in the art of influencing across non-direct reporting lines. These leaders-to-be will learn to take quarterly and yearly goals and break them down into actionable tasks, and, perhaps more importantly, know how to mobilize workers across teams to achieve stellar results. 

    Don’t underestimate the impact of a well-designed program on fostering broader connections throughout the organization. When the unexpected inevitably happens, organizations, where people have loose but broad connections, can understand and respond to the circumstances better.

  4. Increase success in navigating change

    For organizations expecting shifts in the industry, doubling down on this core leadership skill could prove to be a good investment. And even if the only prediction is smooth sailing ahead, change is always inevitable. The ability of a leader to not only navigate a new territory but to do so while maintaining authority, respect, and keeping the morale high, is crucial to getting out safe and sound on the other side. 

    If anything, the pandemic and tumult of 2020 have proven that businesses with leaders who are quick to adapt and bring everyone on board to new ways of working have been the most successful in weathering the Covid-19 storm. It’s also prudent to always be prepared to react to industry disruptors. Think about how Netflix changed the game for video rental companies like Blockbuster. A leader who can navigate such intense intra-industry competition could prove vital to a company’s long-term survival. 

What elements are important in a leadership development program?

Though each organization should design its leadership development program to address the specific challenges and opportunities in its company’s future, certain building blocks are applicable to all types of businesses. We’ll go through each of them below. 

Coaching

First, it’s important to provide a coach or a mentor for each person in your leadership development program. This way, they can gain access and exposure to top management, and have a clearer perspective into the day-to-day of the company’s leadership. Coaches also provide a safe space for employees to ask questions as they learn, and are available to bounce ideas off of, especially as the program participants explore which type of role they’re hoping to grow into.

Skill development for a position as vague as “leadership” can be overwhelming without the right support. Coaches, perhaps even small support groups that all grow together, can help employees better identify the specific directions in which they want to head. This gives them a better idea early on about the skills they want to hone and the ways in which they would be excited to add value to their companies. 

Accountability

Tomorrow’s management will need to learn today how to hold teammates accountable without micromanaging and take accountability for their own actions. The two are intertwined, as the latter helps immensely with the former. 

Displaying a strong sense of accountability as a leader, especially when your actions are public-facing with stronger repercussions for missteps, instills a wider culture of accountability. This makes it easier to make sure that everyone else feels a sense of responsibility to complete their work, and to speak up when something’s not right. Encouraging accountability while helping everyone feel safe to pursue innovative ideas is a tough balancing act — but one that every future leader needs in their toolkit. 

Change management

Whether there’s an upcoming company reorganization, layoffs or a pivot in the overall strategic direction, change in business is inevitable. Leaders need to both understand the best way to get the business to the next phase and ensure that everyone is brought along with the transition. 

Traditionally, change management was all about setting the right tone, determining the correct process, and over-communicating to achieve a seamless execution. Given the complexity and speed of change, however, change management today is more about empowering more people throughout the team to define and shape needed changes rather than pushing an iron-clad plan from the top.

Influence and negotiation

Soft skills are important in a leader, and perhaps there are no soft skills more important than the ability to successfully influence others (especially across reporting lines) and negotiating in a way that creates value for each party. Despite a greater responsibility and accountability, leaders are still a part of a team. And the actions of their team both reflect directly on them and shine a light on their own capabilities. Both influencing and negotiation can have disastrous results for unskilled employees and foster negative sentiments, all while opportunities for win-win situations and value creation are left on the table. 

Communication

As a leader, communication takes on a whole new meaning. There’s an imbued sense of power and direction in a leader’s words, and their impact is far-reaching in a way that it just wasn’t when they were individual contributors. Leaders need to focus on clarity, providing no room for misinterpretation, and communicate carefully to set the tone. It’s also important to learn how to maintain a balance between respect and approachability, which is difficult to achieve without targeted effort to develop communication skills. If you have one, consider using your company’s internal communications team to produce thought leadership that relays messages from leadership.

Goals and milestones

Setting clear milestones for participants of the program keeps everyone on track and helps management measure the success of the program. However, alongside the program’s own goals, instilling future leaders with an understanding of measuring company and team successes is critical. Make a goal too big of a stretch, and nobody will be motivated to work toward it, knowing that it won’t happen anyway. Make it too easy, and no one will feel challenged (not to mention, your organization won’t move as quickly and as far as it could have). Learning the strategy behind creating measurable and attainable goals, while still maintaining an element of aspiration, is a strong leadership trait — and an essential part of any leadership development program. 

Along with including all the elements above, take some time to consider what specific skills your particular company might need in the years to come. Instead of focusing on general skill-building — which can be overwhelming for many — make sure your leadership development program emphasizes traits that will best prepare your organization for the road ahead. 

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Published January 22, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Head of Insights

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