How to Create a Successful Leadership Development Program
How to Create a Successful Leadership Development Program

How to Create a Successful Leadership Development Program

Leadership Development   — 5 MIN


If leaders are made and not born, leadership development is how we build them, right? While this effort is vital for organizations to grow their leaders, there is no universal way to develop a successful leadership development program. However, there are some essential components to consider when assessing how to develop a leadership development program for your organization.

Defining your leadership development program needs

One of the first things your team must evaluate is – what are we currently doing? If this is a new program, first determine your leadership team and current training gaps. For example, do you have a lot of new leaders managing people for the first time? The content of their training is vastly different from what a seasoned CEO needs. Segmenting the group based on experience level will help make the program as impactful as possible for your leaders. Smaller groups may also increase your new leaders’ levels of psychological safety by feeling comfortable sharing their struggles without worrying about saying the wrong thing in front of senior leaders.

An additional component of defining needs is determining the program’s intended scope. Are you hoping to build a specific skill within your leadership, such as becoming a more inclusive leader, or is it a broader goal of developing an immersion-style leadership program? Once the scope is determined, your team can begin the planning process. If feasible, reach out to your leadership team to see which topics they want additional training around. If this program is now part of the leadership culture, you want your teams to see how it benefits and applies to them.

Building your leadership development program

Now that you have identified your audience and scope, it is time to build. If you are revamping your existing leadership development program, soliciting feedback from program “graduates” tells you what’s working for your employees and what isn’t. Depending on the current model, this is an opportunity to revisit your development budget and see if there are additional areas you could include, such as tuition reimbursement. These large initiatives tend to require several rounds of approvals, so involving decision-makers from the beginning can help ensure the program stays on track to launch.

As you launch the program, understand that it may take multiple forms before the final version comes together. Depending on how many people are in the program, it might be easier to design it in phases. Prioritizing your most immediate leadership objectives first also helps your L&D team not be tasked with having all the answers at once, giving them more time to tweak and shape each phase more strategically.

Identify potential leaders and build a talent pipeline

Successful organizations know that succession planning is critical to protecting the company’s growth and place in the market. Many organizations include succession as part of their annual planning and organizational health check. People resign and retire all the time, and organizations do not want to fill these roles in a hurried or disorganized approach. Instead, building up the next generation of leaders and conducting external searches for positions without solid internal pools is vital to make transitions as smooth as possible. This scenario is where leadership development programs make an impact. Current leaders can recommend the best internal candidates and invite them to apply or join the program. As part of this process, it is also vital that protocols are in place to help reduce bias in these decisions. A way to minimize this is ensuring that there is a committee of decision-makers and only utilizing performance-based selection criteria.

For example, participants undergo extensive training on the various components of leadership within your organization and get paired with a leadership coach or tenured leader to continue developing after the formal program ends. Connecting participants with leaders in a role they aspire to helps maintain their internal network and be candid with someone other than their direct manager. Being a mentor/coach allows your experienced leaders to stay engaged with the next generation of employees and strengthens their ability to upskill teams. Organizations know that participating in these programs one time cannot instantly make someone a great leader – it takes intentional cultivation and a dedication to continuous learning to get the most out of your leadership development program.

Why do some leadership development programs fail?

Even when created with the best intentions, sometimes leadership development programs are unsuccessful. Many organizations struggle to gain buy-in from employees or have an environment that does not allow leaders to prioritize the program based on their current workload or responsibilities. Kevin Kruse argues that there are several additional reasons why this happens, including:

Training is after the fact. As many people move into leadership and managing others on average at age 30, much of their work ethic and habits (good and bad!) have already formed. A great way to combat this is to ensure they receive in-depth training as emerging leaders to start their careers on the right path. 

Uninspiring program format. With hybrid work and technology at our fingertips, it’s imperative to design the program in a way that is interactive and accessible. Consider using microlearning as part of your program, such as Blue Ocean Brain’s leadership development content to give on-demand, bite-sized content.

Training doesn’t align with their competency model for promotions and growth. During the planning phase, ensure that the goals and expectations of the program align with annual evaluation criteria. If this is a prerequisite for a promotion, ensure that the program allows leaders to hit their goals and be well-positioned for the next opportunity.

Lack of follow-through. Employees have a lot on their plate, and it is easy for some tasks to fall through the cracks. If you want your leaders to get as much out of the program as possible, you must incorporate follow-up protocols such as weekly touchpoints.

Measuring Results

Leadership development is already a $360+ billion industry and will grow an additional $26.7 billion from 2020-2024, according to Technavio. With companies pouring lots of time and money into these programs, they expect to see results. An important question to ask during planning is – what do we want to get out of this program? Consider having an L&D task force to assist with brainstorming and include individuals from multiple levels and departments within the company to ensure that the program is as inclusive as possible. Although there are significant variances based on the individual company and its needs, traditional metrics are participation/engagement, employee retention, and performance evaluations/promotability. Once your metrics are determined, it is imperative to gather feedback. Checking in on the participants at program milestones gives you real-time intel into how they feel the program is going, what they are getting out of it, and any suggestions for future improvements. A great way to encourage self-reflection during the program is by providing each participant with a journal to document their thoughts and new insights.

Additionally, having an event where participants share what they learned with the group and celebrate completion is a great way to continue teambuilding with the leaders and promote the program internally. Your leaders should feel encouraged and supported in their professional development and, recognizing their achievement is a powerful way to boost employee engagement. After the program ends, make sure you and your L&D team pat yourselves on the back! After taking some time to regroup, gather participant feedback and analyze your metrics, it’s time to start planning for next year. One idea to maintain fresh ideas with the program is to elevate recent program graduates into the mentor/coach role. This opportunity allows new graduates to practice upskilling others and ensures that the mentor/coach pool is inclusive and reaches as many people as possible.

Determining how to develop a leadership development program for your organization is not easy and can take several iterations before getting it right. The good news is organizations that invest in leadership development opportunities tend to be more innovative and perform better financially than those that don’t. Having these programs in place also helps your firm become an employer of choice – people want to work for companies that commit to growing their teams. Encouraging leadership development helps strengthen your internal talent pipelines and increases your ability to retain top talent. Now is a great time to take a holistic look at your current initiatives and build a leadership development program – your organization and employees (both current and future) will thank you.