When I ask clients what kind of return they’re looking for from a leadership development initiative, it’s usually in terms of how the initiative can have a visible, measurable impact on the organization.

Many factors drive the success of a leadership development initiative. We’ve identified 7 key factors that can make or break its impact:

Tips for a More Successful Leadership Development Initiative

1. Involve your business unit managers. It’s all about alignment. As heads of the business units and the direct managers of the program participants, the business unit leaders directly impact the mindset participants will have in the program, as well as the environment they will return to when the program is over. If participants return to their jobs and hear “I don’t care what they told you in the program, here’s the reality around here,” then little behavior change is likely to happen.

2. Clarify why participants are in the program. I recently conducted a leadership development program for middle managers and asked the participants why they were there. About 1/3 of the class answered with some version of “I was told to be here by HR/the organization.” When you hear that as a facilitator, you know you have your work cut out for you. If participants don’t have a purpose for participating, they will likely spend those days with their body in the program and their minds elsewhere.

We encourage participants to have a conversation with their direct manager prior to attending our programs to agree on what the participant should focus on during the program, what outcomes the manager expects, and the support the manager will give to the participant following the program. There are key things bosses can do to signal support.

3. Partner with your leadership development provider. Your leadership development provider should take the time to understand the environment, culture, and leadership strategy of your organization. This helps make the learning experience more impactful for the participants. I once ran a program that received a low end-of-program evaluation score. I spoke with the client and they shared that a large re-organization had been announced within the company and everyone was worried about losing their jobs. Had we known of this context, we might have been able to help participants work through the change during the workshop.

As a client, you should have confidence that your leadership development provider is an expert in their field. An effective partnership is one in which your provider/partner knows what is happening in your organization, and they’re able to take that information and tailor the program according to your leaders’ needs.

4. Prioritize your leadership development efforts. There are many reasons an organization invests in leadership development. Some common themes include: equipping new/emerging leaders so they start off on the right foot, preparing high-potential leaders for jobs at the next level, or addressing specific organizational challenges such as rapid expansion or a cultural transition. Resources are often tight and most leadership development initiatives cannot do everything on their wish list. It will be important to partner with business unit leaders to determine what is most critical and which initiatives they can support.

5. Don’t focus only on senior level leaders. While resources may require you to prioritize your plans, that doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean you can afford to neglect the development needs of leaders at other levels. One of the challenges of leading an internal leadership development function is providing cost-effective development for all leaders. This may take some creativity and innovation on your part. There are ways to scale and accelerate leadership development across large populations. Consider: Can senior leaders or HR facilitators take on the role of trainer in programs? Can you use blended or online leadership development tools? Could you license instructional materials and deliver programs with internal trainers? Asking yourself these questions may help you leverage the resources you already have.

6. Think beyond the program itself. Leadership development initiatives need to go far beyond the several days of the program itself. Initiatives are now often a 6- to 12-month journey, rather than a one-off event. Be sure to plan for all 3 phases — the preparation, engagement, and application stages of the initiative — to make learning stick:

  • Preparation stage: This involves everything that a participant will go through before the program begins, including pre-reading materials, pre-assessments and even conversations with managers to determine the area of focus.
  • Engagement stage: This includes what happens during the training program itself. How can you create space for the participant to focus on their learning and disengage from their “day job?”
  • Application stage: How can you ensure that what is taught lasts beyond the program? This includes following up with participants’ managers, creating accountability partners, facilitating application activities, and checking in on goals that were set during the program.

Ultimately, the impact of your leadership development initiative should extend and continue long after a program has concluded. Remember that what happens after the program is just as important as what happens during the program.

7. Share the impact of your leadership development initiative in terms your business leaders understand. At CCL, we often talk about influence using the head, heart, and hands. You need to speak to your stakeholders in terms that are important to them. If they speak the language of numbers, be sure to measure impact of the initiative along the way so you can talk about the ROI of the financial investment, and gather and share evaluation data at the end of the program and in the months following it. This will help your stakeholders understand the effectiveness of the program, the learning that occurred, and how the learning was applied back on the job.

If you have stakeholders who tend to lead more from the heart, be sure to capture real participant success stories. Are they communicating with their peers and employees better? Did a leader who looked like they were “derailing” turn things around? Have employee engagement scores improved?

Some senior leader stakeholders are best influenced by being actively involved in things. How can you get their buy-in and commitment to your initiatives? Can they be the one to invite people to the program? Will they be on a panel to evaluate action-learning projects? Will they financially sponsor excursions for participants to visit different plants/offices/facilities? Will they share their own leadership journeys?

In the world of leadership development, if you can demonstrate an impact, you can influence the organization in very important ways. Begin with the end in mind and be clear about what it is that you’re trying to accomplish with your leadership development efforts. And focus particularly on these 7 factors, which increase the odds of success and impact in leadership development initiatives.


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We can help you determine what investments your organization needs to make in its people for maximum impact from a leadership development initiative. Partner with us for a custom talent development solution tailored to your unique needs to help grow your organization into the future.



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