Five Principles for Designing Great Leadership Development Programs

Posted 03.27.2019

When you do something long enough you eventually start seeing patterns in the data. In 20 years of working as a leadership educator, speaker and executive coach, I’ve seen a lot of data points on leadership development programs and definitely see some patterns. The observations in this post are based on delivering over 80 cohorts of our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program and delivering hundreds of sessions as a guest faculty member in scores of corporate leadership development programs. I’ve had the good fortune to have learned a lot from developing our programs at the Eblin Group and from observing the design of many programs that span a wide range from not good to definitely great.

Here, then, are five principles that I’ve become convinced are essential to designing great leadership development programs.

  1. Begin with the end in mind: There’s a reason this was Stephen Covey’s first habit of highly effective people. Before you do anything else on your program, get clear about your goals. What are you trying to accomplish? Who gets a say in defining success? What do they think? How will you know if you’re successful? What do positive short-term and long-term outcomes look like? Avoid designing leadership development programs that are one-off events that feel like they’re driven by checking a do-able box instead of being clearly linked to strategic deliverables. If you want to focus on deliverables instead of do-ables, that almost necessitates a longitudinal and not an episodic approach to leadership development. You can convey a picture of success  in a one or two day program; it takes time for people to groove the behaviors that actualize the picture.
  2. Applied science beats pure science: There’s a place for deep theory and research. Your leadership development program isn’t that place. If you want your program to have an impact and stick, you need to keep it simple, practical and immediately applicable for the participants. It’s a great idea to base the program on a model of leadership, a competency model or a set of core values to serve as an organizing framework but that’s not enough. You’ve got to always be focusing on how people are actually going to apply the model in real life. That means keeping the content connected to their real world experience and being crystal clear about how they can put it to work. People are generally too busy to see the value in things like team exercises where everyone works together to build helicopters out of Lego blocks (yes, that was actually a thing).
  3. Create a narrative thread and pull it through: The overall design of the program and individual agendas within the design should have an obvious flow. An overlooked but important aspect of strong presentations is logical transitions between segments of the presentation. The same principle applies to designing a compelling and effective leadership development program. It shouldn’t feel like a random assortment of unconnected cats and dogs. End to end design matters for the overall program and each element within it. It all clearly needs to hang together.
  4. Consider the audience: Make an extra effort to confirm that you fully understand the world of the leaders in your program. What is their day-to day experience? How much bandwidth do they have for extra stuff? (The answer is not much.) For your program to be successful, it needs to feel clearly relevant to your participants. Keep their calendars in mind when you design the program and leverage that to everyone’s learning advantage. Their schedules are full of things they’re going to have to do anyway. As much as possible, equip them to use their calendars as opportunities to try out new behaviors and practices that will help them become better leaders. That will require you to make it easy for them to practice new behaviors and, with the support of trusted colleagues, observe what’s working, what’s not and make adjustments that lead to positive habits and routines.
  5. Make it multi-modal and keep the lectures brief: Keep things moving and varied. Each passing year is a deeper and deeper episode of short-attention span theater. Ask your speakers to design their talks so they don’t go longer than 7 minutes or so at a time without getting the participants working on something or engaging with each other around something substantive. When you bring in senior executives ask them to have a conversation, not deliver a lecture. Create plenty of opportunities for the participants to learn from each other. When you do, the students become the teachers.

Over the course of the program (which is not just one in-person session – remember longitudinal, not episodic) leverage lots of different kinds of touch points beyond the events themselves. Some of the ideas I’ve used myself or seen successfully used by clients include:

  • Pre-work and context setting for the participants
  • Briefings to create an environment of understanding and support from participants’ managers
  • 360 degree feedback (but only if you have a robust plan in place for participants to follow up with their colleagues in a meaningful way!)
  • Individual development plans based on 360 or some other type of assessment
  • Structured and ongoing peer-to-peer coaching
  • Coaching sessions delivered by external or internal coaches
  • Conference call progress checks for participants to share best practices on follow-through and to celebrate early wins.
  • Short video small group coaching conferences to share lessons learned from follow-through
  • Cross-functional or executive shadow days for leaders to observe what it’s like for others to do what they do and learn more about the company and senior leadership levels
  • Discovery conversations with cross-functional colleagues and peers that are debriefed in future group sessions
  • Immersion days with customers
  • Sitting in with front-line employees and doing their jobs with them and debriefing the lessons learned from those experiences
  • Closing 360 feedback to measure progress (but only if, as in the case of the opening 360, individual results are kept confidential and the assessment is understood to be solely for development and not evaluation)

And, one last principle that overarches the others listed here – create a program that builds the capacity of the leader to drive their own development when they’re not in a formal program.

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