Five key elements essential to developing effective leadership programs.
By Janice Miller
In today’s competitive business landscape, organizations need strong leaders to transform the workplace and lead in ever-changing futures. Companies that have figured out how to create competitive advantage have also recognized the business benefits of senior leadership development programs.
When done right, senior leadership development programs have a measurable impact on a company’s financial performance and competitive position. In fact, Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning’s 2016 State of Leadership Development survey found that best- in-class programs are 94 percent more likely than aspiring programs (those that require improvement in some areas) to make a significant impact on financial success and 70 percent more likely to have a big impact on competitive performance.
Best-in-class leadership development programs address specific business challenges, help senior leaders understand what’s unique about their organization in the market, and align program elements in order to drive identified strategies forward. These programs are characterized by five key components that today’s companies can employ:
- Learning approaches that are relevant to the business;
- Principles of program design;
- Innovative delivery models;
- Executives who are deeply engaged; and
- The ability to measure the impact of learning on the business.
- Learning approaches that are relevant to the business. One of the hallmarks of best-in-class leadership programs is relevance. For leaders to make the right business decisions, they need to have a clear line of sight between what is relevant and how a decision fits into the strategic goals of the company.
Creating a program with high relevance and alignment to strategy begins with a needs assessment— a deep dive with key stakeholders to uncover what requirements the organization has for leadership development. What does a deep dive entail? A lot of probing questions about the issues that are most critical. What are the strategic objectives? The current priorities? The most pressing challenges? What values does the organization hold most dear? What, exactly, is it trying to accomplish? What have they done or tried so far? What capabilities do they want to see more of in their leaders?
Once objectives are established based on the needs assessment, a curriculum can be designed to meet those objectives. For example, a company may be expanding by mergers and acquisitions, so it’s crucial that their leaders know how to quickly build an integrated culture that makes people feel a sense of belonging and understanding that they’re driving toward a common vision and mission. And if a company is growing by strategic alliances, the skills and capabilities around partnering with people in another organization is paramount to define common goals and build trust.
The next step is creating a program that delivers impact. This means drawing on resources that strengthen the underlying message of an organization’s strategy, bring in fresh thinking and new perspectives, and provide practical, on-the-job learning to make the program relevant and stick for the long term. Providing lessons that are relevant helps businesses ensure that the programs are applicable and strategic.
- Principles of program design. Best-in-class senior leadership development programs also rely on principles that represent learning innovation. Whether it be through learning by doing, over time, by teaching, or with others, good program design brings these principles together in a thoughtful and deliberate way. This will yield the type of impactful learning that today’s organizations demand and that can be used long after the formal program has ended.
A sequencing that starts broadly and moves on to specific, organizational and or personal application is highly effective. The first step to achieve this is to gather executives to explore what topics are critical to the organization, how it supports the strategy, what it has done so far, and how the program participants can contribute to achieving its goals.
In following sessions, introduce an outside expert and incorporate specific case studies to equip participants with a solid understanding of the topic and to reinforce peer-to-peer engagement. By doing this, participants can discuss the latest thinking with an expert and practice using new frameworks and approaches in a real context without the pressure of real consequences.
After these sessions are complete, participants can apply lessons in the context of a specific problem, reflect on the experience, and come back to the larger participant group to discuss it. This integrated approach helps leaders incorporate teachings into their daily work, and encourages them to be actionable and bring about change.
- Innovative learning delivery models. Learning with and from peers is influential and can be one of the biggest drivers of business and leadership outcomes. In any organization, cohort-based leadership development is a highly effective way to foster interaction among leaders and learners, and to create opportunities to collaborate across organizational structures and geographic borders. Drawing on the collective wisdom of people across the business allows participants to experience the work together while also making it relevant to their goals.
It’s no secret that learning over time is the most effective way for the lessons to stick. To ensure this, consider implementing a blended delivery model. In these structures, participants attend live, virtual sessions delivered over time, rather than delivered in an intense, compressed program that lasts a week or two. This approach allows learners to experience the value of a cohort-based approach without requiring participants to take valuable time away from their work. And elements of the learning can be shared immediately among other team members or direct reports in real time back on the job.
With their shorter bursts of learning, blended delivery models can provide stronger opportunities for interaction among learners, which has a lasting impact. They also allow participants more opportunity to incorporate their knowledge in the real world and reflect on the impact of what they’re doing in relation to day-to-day problems they encounter.
- Deeply engaging executives. Executive engagement not only ensures that the learning objectives are tied to the organization’s strategy, but also helps demonstrate how leadership development is valued within the company.
To start building executive engagement, organizations need to involve senior executives in the initial needs assessment. Talking with senior executives helps establish what the most critical needs are and ensures that the program’s objectives are set. When senior executives are involved in a program’s design and delivery, they infuse the program with much-needed context.
For many best-in-class programs, executives become teachers, presenting or co-moderating a session in an area of their expertise or interest. This is critical for the success of an organization because when senior executives are involved as teachers—sharing insights, stories, and lessons they have learned along the way— they foster some of the most powerful moments in the program.
- Measuring the effect of learning on the business. One of the best ways to measure whether development efforts are paying off is to incorporate learning projects (also known as impact projects) as part of the course design that address discrete business challenges. The purpose of impact projects is to provide opportunities for participants to address current business challenges, apply what they’ve been taught to the issue, and demonstrate results that provide tangible benefits to the organization.
At the same time, the projects provide a way to measure the impact that a leadership development program has on the business by capturing how the modules were used to address the business challenge. Because these projects have sponsors—someone more senior in the organization who can provide guidance, support, resources, and visibility—they have significance and can serve to advance key strategic initiatives. Define projects areas at the outset and ensure that each potential project area is aligned to one or more module themes. Incorporating applied learning in the form of impact projects is one of the most effective ways to engage learners and puts lessons directly in the context of an organization’s business.
Best-in-class programs deliver tangible results to a business. Take Emirates NBD for example. Emirates made leadership development a key element in its strategy to become a leading financial services firm in the Middle East. It employed a program to build leadership capacity among its leaders. Through a blend of self-paced learning sessions, face-to-face workshops, virtual meetings, and projects, participants learned how to pursue key issues to the bank’s strategy, including entering markets, growing market share, and formulating value propositions. Within a year of completion, Emirates NBD had promoted almost 40 percent of its program participants and calculated a direct business impact of more than $1 million, more than four times its L&D investment.
An organization devoted to leadership programs will not only see results with their financial performance and competitive position, but also have a deeper understanding of leadership and how it can pave the way for the future of their business.
Janice Miller is director, leadership programs, product management at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning.