A lot of effort — time, money, and attention from key executives — goes into developing leadership development programs.

Program designers usually focus on meeting the leadership development needs of participants and aligning content with corporate strategy and goals. And they should.

But a third focus in program design and execution could be the key to ensuring a strong return on your leadership development budget: Boss support.

Our research on what makes leadership development programs successful has found that people who have support from their bosses get more out of these programs.

We surveyed 2,461 participants from several leadership development programs. The surveys were done 2 months after the programs ended to ensure the results reflected what participants were getting after finishing the program and returning to their normal work routines.

What we found was that bosses can make — or break — your leadership development program.


Organizational Scaffolding

Leadership development programs often include retreats, classes, webinars, and other formal learning opportunities. But what happens before and after those formal programs has a major impact on the “return on learning” for participants.

When bosses are more engaged with their direct reports’ leadership development and more supportive of it, participants report they get more value. Our survey looked at 4 outcomes of leadership development: self-awareness, leadership capability, leadership effectiveness, and engagement. We also asked them about how supportive their bosses had been.

Those participants who rated support from their bosses as high had better outcomes than those who rated their boss support as moderate or low. In fact, those who rated their boss support as low tended to report program outcomes below the average level for all participants.

For example, in the engagement outcome, which measures how engaged participants felt at work because of the program, those with high boss support reported an average score of 8.1 (on a 10-point scale); those with low boss support reported an average of 6.5, or 21% lower.


3 Steps to Improve Boss Support

While it’s important that bosses communicate their support for an organization’s leadership development efforts, they can do quite a bit more to support their direct reports. Here are 3 steps to start:

  1. Prior to attending the program, participants should meet with their bosses to discuss what skills and characteristics they need to focus on. Ideally, participants also take a 360 evaluation that includes input from their boss, which provides further fuel for the leadership development experience. At this stage, a supportive boss will also help the participant choose a strategic challenge to work on after the program.
  1. In many leadership development programs, participants have opportunities to build relationships with other people in their organization — often in other functions or “silos.” In open-enrollment programs, participants may meet other professionals from their industry or even different industries. This often develops into a formal or informal support network and sometimes includes peer coaching and accountability. Bosses should support these relationships, which can help both employees and their teams.
  1. The new insights and skills gained in a leadership development program are only valuable if they’re applied. After the program, participants ideally would apply their new skills and insights to the strategic challenge they agreed to with their bosses during the preparation phase. In addition, organizations can provide resources to the bosses of program participants so they understand what the participant learned and how to support ongoing development.

These support tactics from bosses ensure that participants — and their organizations — get more relevant, applicable results from leadership development programs.

To learn more about the role of bosses in leadership development, read our article, How Bosses Can Make or Break Leadership Development Programs.

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