Building an Effective Leadership Development Program

Posted On: April 7

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a colleague who works for one of our government’s largest departments (which will go unnamed) asking if I would be willing to share my thoughts on how to build a world-class leadership development program. I was deeply honored to be recognized as an authority in this area and welcomed the opportunity to share my opinions and ideas formed in nearly two decades of creating and delivering leadership and employee development programs. Here are my responses to the questions she posed…

Questions for Thought Leaders:

What are the key environmental factors that are shaping what we demand from our leaders?

There are several strong environmental factors impacting today’s leaders, among the most significant are

  • high levels of fear due to the global economic upheavals; a tremendous loss of respect and trust for leaders both in corporations and government
  • aging of the leadership population with a significant values gap between them and the incoming generation of new leaders
  • an understanding of the role of leaders in global interconnectedness
  • the need for stewardship of the world’s resources — financial, human and environmental

I could list another dozen – but to me, these are the most pressing.

What are the most significant gaps you see in the development of leaders?

In past times the leader was often viewed as a maverick, a pioneer, a strong independent type.  Today one of the key attributes of an effective leader is the ability and willingness to collaborate.  The amount/speed of information and change is far too fast for any single person to handle on their own.  A big gap I see is in the skills and tools leaders use to communicate, connect and collaborate —  E.Q. /interpersonal skills/listening skills/team-building skills/transparency/candor. All the things that help them in gathering around themselves a vast network of bright, sharp, smart, talented people — who they turn to often for help, frank feedback and ideas.  To me, a truly effective leader of today and tomorrow acts more as a hub than as the point of the spear.  They are the go-to person that people on their teams and other departments know can find an answer, find the resources, find the talent, break down walls, navigate bureaucracy… and inspire and motivate them to deliver outstanding results.  Leadership used to be (or so people thought it was) about telling others what to do — now the leader is a servant in helping the people around them get the most important things done effectively and efficiently. The best leaders of today and tomorrow are organizers of genius, servants, supporters and motivators.

To add to that point — the three biggest issues I face in almost all of my client companies right now are: A) lack of a vivid and well-communicated vision for the future the organization (whether the leader is guiding 2 people or 20,000) which is especially critical in times of turmoil and changes such as what we all face right now.  B) Lack of open, honest, robust communication across the organization, in other words: transparency + candor. Having courageous conversations and telling the truth.  C) Inability to effectively execute to plan.  My research shows that most organizations only execute perhaps 15% of what is expected/desired in the strategic plan – the loss of productivity and profit from this single issue is overwhelming in most organizations.

Nearly all of my work right now is focused on these three areas. At the request of several clients, I have developed two very intensive new programs around “leading a winning culture” and helping employees learn to take more “accountability and responsibility” for the success of their organizations.  The lament I hear most often is that people are waiting for things to get better or depending strictly on their leaders to save the organization — the only way people and companies will survive the current economic challenges is for every single person in the organization to see themselves as a leader and to be proactive in looking for ways to improve the business and serve their customers superbly. My training programs on these topics have been extremely well received and impactful because so many folks are struggling right now and need to see a way out of the darkness – a way to start turning things around by themselves. There is great power in taking back some control for your future, but people need to be given the tools and direction to make that happen because they feel so helpless and overwhelmed right now.

What are the most effective means in use today to develop leaders?

I believe that a multi-tiered approach to leadership development is the best.  Most of the programs I put together follow a path of: some self-evaluation through tests and audits, 360° feedback from peers, subordinates and superiors; facilitated review of the 360 feedback; selected reading and study for a depth of knowledge; classroom lecture; individual workshops; peer group discussion; peer group workshops; peer group team presentations; continued team homework; and continued self-study — with 360° evaluations and self-evaluations every four months to determine specific areas of improvement and continued areas for development.  In this sort of format I address all the senses and learning styles, and by making people work both independently and in teams it requires some introspective study while demanding thoughtful dialogue as well.  The pre-and post-assessments help in establishing ROI and a clear learning path.

What companies and organizations are doing leadership training really well?  What would you highlight about their efforts?

A company that I think does a spectacular job in training would be Genentech.  Mostly because they make it a “community of learning” and do not force anyone to go to training.  If someone is truly interested and wants to learn a topic, they are invited to participate.  There are also told that they may leave at any time if they do not feel like the class is adding value.  In this way, you only get serious learners and the instructors/facilitators are challenged to put together highly effective and valuable programs or run the risk of having everyone get up and walk out on them!  I have led some Genentech training and been involved in other aspects of their learning and development program and found it to be a very professional, student-focused approach to leadership development.  Other corporations well known for their leadership development programs would, of course, be GE and IBM — organizations known simply for highly innovative training programs would be 3M, P&G, Google, UPS, Southwest Airlines,W.L. Gore and Associates, Motorola and Ideo.

I’ve also recently attended the Global Institute for Leadership Development held by Linkage Inc. each year.  As far as big events, where you could send several people to get a real good look at lots of ideas and information from highly qualified presenters — the folks at Linkage did a very nice job at this event.  Every attendee gets an executive coach, there is a 360 evaluation you have to complete before you attend which is used for coaching and training while you’re at the event, and they put you on learning teams so that you can go through what your learning with peers from other organizations (or if you so choose, your company can create its own learning team and work independently of all the other teams).  I enjoyed the program enough that I am thinking about taking my own learning team of several clients CEOs through the program together next year.

Although I have never attended, I’ve always heard wonderful things about the Center for Creative Leadership as well.  I have access to the founder/director if that is of interest to you.

From a leadership “thought leader” perspective the top folks right now seem to be: Warren Bennis, Noel Tichy, Marshall Goldsmith, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Bill George, Frances Hesselbein, and possibly Ram Charan – although he leans much more toward strategy.  I know most of these folks personally if you would like me to reach out to any of them on your behalf.

What are the most effective ways to train leaders?

To me, there are three things that create an effective learning environment for leaders.  The first is the quality of the instructor — the instructor must have the credibility, personal experience, knowledge and skills to earn the respect and trust of the group they are leading.  If the group does not believe that the facilitator/instructor knows as much or more about the topic then the folks in the room — not in an arrogant or condescending way — but simply that the instructor has paid their dues and can answer even the most difficult and challenging questions with a calm confidence that shows that they take the subject extremely seriously – then they will not be able to lead a group of high-level executives through a leadership development program.  The second most important factor is the design of the program — is it robust and realistic enough to keep people engaged and working hard?  No fluff, no silly hypothetical case studies, no extraneous information — effective leadership training needs to be highly focused with a clear idea of specifically what you’re trying to achieve – with a curriculum and training approach that keeps all participants highly engaged on multiple levels — auditory, visual, kinesthetic, creative, problem-solving, logical, individual, teams.  The last is perhaps the most important, which is that the participants having a clear understanding that they will be held accountable for showing genuine improvement.  I have been asked several times in the past to “guarantee” the effectiveness of my training and I always say to the client, “if you give me control over compensation and termination, I can guarantee results.”  If there are no ramifications — either positive or negative — as a result of the attendees’ performance and behaviors after the class — then there is no reason in the world for them to take the class seriously.

Does this answer change as we talk about front-line; middle- and executive leaders?

No – it is the same at all levels – the only things that change are the scope, complexity and intensity of the information delivered and the difficulty level of the workshops.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to create and sustain a highly successful leadership training program?

The single most important factor is C-level buy-in.  If the senior leaders of the organization are not extremely serious about leadership development program, participating in it actively, and clearly using it to decide who gets promotions, bonuses, opportunities — then there is no way that a leadership development program can be effective.  The best example to the positive would be GE — they built Crotonville, brought in top-notch instructors from around the world, tied the performance management and leadership development programs directly to compensation and future opportunity within the organization, and all of the top senior leaders — especially Jack Welch – were routinely instructors that the center.  If you were a leader at GE — or ever hoped to be one — Crotonville was the epicenter of your universe.  When people see this sort of commitment and involvement from the senior leadership team they understand clearly that they work for an organization that takes personal and professional development very seriously.

Well, those were my answers. I hope you found value in the information shared here — I look forward to your comments and questions. Take good care — John Spence

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  1. John,

    This piece was insightful and rich in its description of an effective leadership training program. I appreciate your candor around the real need for very comprehensive approach in order to facilitate meaningful change. Too often, in an attempt to find balance between investing in training and managing the budget, companies short change the process and then enjoy very little lasting change. Their ROI is diminished because they are unwilling to invest both the people and money resources to fully integrate it into their culture.

    I also thank you for the comment you made about “guaranteeing” training results by tying them to compensation. Leadership must let others see how important they believe the program is if anyone is going to pay it real attention.

  2. John. Thank-you. Your ongoing commitment to assist others is inspiring. I teach lots of management and leadership curriculum here in the US and globally. I learn from you – authenticity to help others. I learn sharing – and I know first hand benefits you in giving of your time and knowledge MORE than the great value others pull from you.

    Thank-you for leading. By Example to assist trainers, teachers and care givers to be better at making our work places and play places – better.


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