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Written by: Cindy Lynn Roche, CPHR

Many organizations recognize the need for leadership development and set about implementing a program to meet that need. Whether the leadership development program is purchased from a vendor or if it is developed in-house, in-depth front-end analysis of the goal and gaps will result in a more effective design. As the realm of learning & development with the most influence on organizational development, the impact of leadership development programs can be phenomenal! Beyond identified learning outcomes for leaders, a strategically aligned solution can influence broader organizational and operational goals. Leadership development can begin a culture shift that resonates throughout the organization.

Success is heavily dependent on having an influential sponsor-stakeholder who sees the current state of things and wants to move people to doing things in a “better” way (however “different” it may be). It is crucial to have sponsor-level stakeholder buy-in for what the leadership development initiative can do for the organization – more than any other type of learning program, leadership development program must have leadership buy-in. As a proponent of designing learning with specific ends in mind, I like to see programs that have real-world application and impact on bottom-line objectives – leadership development programs, perhaps more than other learning programs, have the greatest opportunity to make a difference to the organization.

Informed by a strong vision and mission, leaders have a context for every conversation, action and outcome so an effective leadership development program should be purposefully designed to address both the needs of leaders and the needs of the organization – L&D and OD. If individuals know what they’re striving for, know what the goal is, they are more likely to achieve it; likewise, the organization will shift in direct relation to the leadership team’s style and ability to lead. An effective way to support the implementation of new ideas and practices that raise the need for leadership development among leaders is to build in personal accountability, so having a sponsor-stakeholder who has the influence to align program participation to leaders’ performance goals, essentially asking learners to link their learning to specific business objectives.

The analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation of a leadership learning initiative remains a project until your program is shown to be achieving its goals. Like any project, you need a charter and a plan to guide the scope and path to achieve desired outcomes – recognize the core challenge and recommend a high level solution that you’ll explore further following in-depth analysis to fully assess the situation. Find a sponsor and a key stakeholder or two to champion the initiative: in addition to providing any necessary funds to the program-project, count on their influence to spread enthusiasm and encourage cooperation to see that the project is implemented, that leadership learning sticks and that learnings are applied in the every day course of business so the organization benefits on its investments in people.

What’s going on, what do we need and what do we want, what are we prepared to do about it? Finding the right solution starts with defining the problem, putting it in context to make connections and ask questions that will clarify the goals and gaps. We need to understand who the learners are and explore what strengths they possess that the leadership development program can build on. We need to also be looking at what may be lacking and how we can close the gap. Often it’s a matter of teaching leaders to harness talent by showing them what they already know, rather than training on complex constructs and concepts, so knowing what you’re trying to fix and having a solid idea of what outcomes should be achieved will ensure that the solution is able to address the ultimate objectives that make leadership development the right solution at any given time.

Analyze the as-is and to-be states to understand the gaps in context so to design a solution that develops leaders effectively. It is in the analysis phase that challenges or issues will come to light, and consideration of potential obstacles will help ensure that the learning design meets the needs of both stakeholders and individual participants. Knowing who, what and why, questioning if there is a where or a when, provides a framework for how to do it and from there the program design can start. The analysis associated with learning assessments will point to what has to change, which allows for determination of how to do that.

Beyond courses on core leadership competencies that improve leaders’ practice relative to strategic thinking and decision making, influence and motivation, collaboration and achievement, leadership development programs can shift how an organization does business. Typically courses are a good idea, and nobody has been hurt by attending a range of leadership-themed training, but a program needs to be broader than moment-in-time events, because learning is a process and mastery requires specific application and practice. Courses give participants an awareness of a topic but putting ideas into practice is where leadership development happens.

Whether it’s built into the courses or built into the training process, leadership development has to emphasize the would-be leader’s personal responsibility to apply what they’ve learned back on the job. Designing the program to maximize opportunities to apply new learning, elevates its potential to positively impact the organization by reinforcing the “formal” lessons learned and encouraging reflection that creates self-awareness on which to grow. To achieve that, leadership development program design has to incorporate elements that touch the day-to-day activities and target specific behaviours. The program design determines the solution and what needs to be developed and delivered. Blended learning solutions provide leadership development programs a variety of mechanisms for reinforcing key objectives behind the initiative.

Consider a range of options and different ways to point from courses to desired actions, behaviours and outcomes. Should there be a course or a series of courses? Should there be a participant contract to outline objectives of the program and define an individual’s learning goals and development plans? Should there be pre or post-course self-assessments? Should there be pre- or post-course assignments? Should there be coaching and, if so, who should be coaching? Could mentoring help? What are the milestones that measure progress in the process, and is there such a thing as “done”?

If the learning-leader is to adopt new practices and change their behaviour, it will be a huge help if the program is aligned to broader organizational objectives – keep it real so that learners themselves are able to answer “why” and “what’s-in-it-for-me”: better relationships, stronger teams, improved results. Regardless of what courses are chosen to address leadership development needs, the learning plan has to support the program goals and keep an eye on big picture goals while remaining meaningful at the individual level.