10 Tips to Design a Leadership Development Program
10 Tips to Design a Leadership Development Program

10 Tips to Design a Leadership Development Program

Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development, Company Culture   — 5 MIN


Scientific research shows that leadership is 70% learned, and 30% genetic. Not only does this prove that companies can teach current management to be better leaders, but it also shows that there is ample leadership potential within the walls of their own organizations. By learning how to design a leadership development program, it’s possible to tap into the capabilities of employees at all levels and capitalize on future leadership opportunities. Here are 10 ways you can get started on building an effective leadership development program.

1. Examine the company culture

A leadership development program should align with your desired company culture: its values, ethics, attitudes, and behaviors within the organization. When evaluating how to develop leaders, it’s crucial to ask how employees and managers currently interact with one another, and how that interaction can improve. 

While it’s tough to nail down exactly how every business’ culture could be better, lessons in growth mindset are sure to be effective in any leadership development program. Employees who complain of an undesirable work atmosphere often experience issues such as unconscious bias, lack of role models, and resistance to change—all common in a fixed mindset organization. Teaching leaders how to be open-minded and to have faith in their colleagues can improve interaction across the workforce.     

2. Address current leadership behavior

Strong leaders should be able to give and receive feedback effectively, address issues surrounding inclusiveness and diversity, and communicate with various generations. Leaders also need to be emotionally intelligent: They must control their reactions in stressful situations, be able to self-evaluate to determine how they can improve, be empathetic to foster trust and maintain a positive team client. 

By evaluating the behaviors of current leaders, companies can decide what specific changes need to happen. For example, during performance reviews, it’s not enough to note that a leader “manages time well.” Instead, managers should be told whether they “meet or exceed project deadlines” or “need to improve time management.” Then, training can be implemented to help the leader improve.

3. Adopt the 4 E’s

Rather than pushing employees to learn the job as fast as possible, a better approach is to promote learning as a continuous process. Josh Bersin recommends doing so by implementing the “4 E’s”: 

Education. Being a leader means more than just leading people; it requires knowing how to serve as an expert in the field. This means taking the time to become educated on each product or service before telling others how to handle them. 

Experience. People learn to lead by leading. Employees must be given an opportunity to be the head of projects, programs, and teams in order to learn how to do it better next time.

Exposure. Confidence can only be built by being exposed to difficult tasks, and by observing, talking with, and getting feedback. Instead of shying away from challenging employees, it’s important to expose them to as many situations as possible.  

Evaluation. Without feedback, it’s impossible to know whether development methods are effective. Organizations must have a method in place to assess what employees have learned, and how much further coaching or training can improve their knowledge. By providing a tool to help leaders set goals and measure results, we can get the feedback needed to further develop and nurture. 

4. Implement vertical development

Many organizations focus on horizontal development, where learning new knowledge and skills helps improve technical competencies. But companies should be adding vertical development to their training repertoire, in which employees learn to change the way they think and behave. By advancing a person’s mindset, they become more self-aware, adaptable, and collaborative—all of which are essential soft skills for leaders. 

Take, for instance, an IT director who has been working in the same company for 20 years. He knows the business and has implemented most of the technology used there. But as fast as technology changes, his department could benefit from the fresh skills of the younger generation. Vertical development teaches the director that his wisdom is still instrumental as a leader, but that listening to the ideas of new hires can help him expand his toolbox.     

5. Offer high-potential employees access to training on demand

As far back as 1999, a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology showed that people learn and perform better when they can access short and engaging content at their own pace, instead of a bunch of complex information in one session. Since then, attention spans have grown even shorter, and workers are being pulled in more directions than ever. 

If companies want to unleash leadership potential in busy employees, they have to make training opportunities flexible. Microlearning has become an essential part of leadership development programs because it provides bite-sized bits of useful information whenever—and wherever—it’s convenient. 

6. Make training customizable

Self-directed learning should be offered to everyone, but not everyone needs to learn the same skills. Because potential leaders are all bringing different skill sets and competencies to the table, leadership training should be catered to each individual’s role. Do they need to know more about how to communicate with stakeholders? How to collaborate with other managers? How to empathize with employees? All of those should be available in training materials, whether they can be beneficial now or in a future position.

7. Adopt an effective mentorship program

A solid mentorship program can improve employee job satisfaction and aid in the professional and personal development of the mentee. But even though about 70% of Fortune 500 companies have implemented such a program, mentoring programs become stale if they are delivered in a one-size-fits-all approach. In order to be effective, team members must recognize the benefits of the program rather than feel obligated to participate. To achieve this, companies need to: 

  • Make it personal, but not too personal. Some programs give mentees a chance to match with a mentor that suits their professional interest, but that doesn’t always mean someone in a similar role. It’s beneficial to consider where employees are in their career journey. For instance, a middle manager could relate well to an upper manager in a different department within the company, while a C-suite executive might learn from someone in a similar role in another organization. 
  • Be clear about the benefits. While mentoring means something different for everyone, everyone involved in the program needs to know its overall purpose – and that it’s not just an obligation. Mentees should see the opportunity as an investment in their personal and professional growth. Mentors should know that they can gain vital leadership skills, expand their horizons by seeing things from different viewpoints, and build solid relationships within the firm. 
  • Align the program with organizational core values.
    The mission of a mentorship program is not only to strengthen skills in the mentor and mentee; it’s to help them exercise and learn important core values of the company. From the time participants enter into the program, they should know that respect, trust, accountability, teamwork, and other core values are all things they will be working on building.

8. Teach resilience

Leaders must be able to navigate gracefully through times of uncertainty, turn struggles into learning opportunities, and become stronger because of them. So what does a company do about managers who panic in stressful situations and balk at change? Not only are employees of such leaders unmotivated and scared of making mistakes; they are three times more likely to quit.

Luckily, resilience can be learned, so it’s the perfect thing to implement into a leadership development program. By teaching leaders to encourage experimentation, make decisions under pressure, and not only deal with stress themselves but offer coping mechanisms to others, companies can turn a culture from negative to positive – no matter what kind of crisis ensues. 

9. Don’t just encourage learning; encourage action

Comprehension can only be measured by applying lessons to real-life scenarios. Every leadership development program should offer three to five actionable takeaways at the end of each lesson via a quiz or assessment to evaluate how well employees absorbed the material. 

10. Evaluate leaders and the leadership program

After the program is completed, the only way to know if it was effective is to gather feedback from leaders as well as other personnel. Among other things, you will need to find out if the program improved performance, changed behavior, increased knowledge, and motivated others. 

One way to measure this is to provide a survey. Another idea is to have an event where participants share what they learned with each other and celebrate completion. It’s not only a great way to continue team building, but also to promote the program internally. 

All of the above can be a daunting task. Fortunately, you do not have to reinvent the wheel to get a leadership program up and running. Blue Ocean Brain offers leadership microlearning journeys that can be tailored to your organization's needs. Contact us to schedule a consultation with one of our learning experts.