The leadership development industry in the US is a $14B industry and growing. Organizations operate quite differently from 20 and even ten years ago, and the meaning of leadership has changed over time. Problem solving and decision making continue to be pushed down further from the C-suite in an effort to scale the business and executive leadership. Organizations are more collaborative than they used to be. Employees are expected to have more influence on strategy delivery and company culture, which requires skills previously reserved for the senior management level. The magnitude of this expectation is significant, hence the willingness of today’s organizations to commit significant resources to the cause of internally developing leaders and fostering these skillsets.

Leadership development initiative results are mixed

An expanding need created this growing industry, but the results of these efforts are mixed. An HBR study reports that more than 50% of senior leaders believe their efforts in developing talent do not sufficiently build the capabilities required. There is no shortage of programs and courses available, but we find these initiatives often fall short of delivering what they promise. This is not necessarily a result of bad content or quality in training programs, but rather blind spots that do not consider factors necessary for ensuring successful implementation.

For our business alone, the frequency of leadership development engagements has increased over the past few years. Executive coaching, development, and training initiatives represent a growing part of our business. While our approach to development is customized by client depending on the needs of the organization, there are some standard, necessary elements to consider before adopting a new program. Without these considerations, no matter the program quality, the effort is more likely to fail the organization and individuals being primed for roles as future leaders.

To improve your chance of success, consider these leadership development program principles

  1. Slow down to speed up. It is necessary to spend a meaningful amount of time understanding the goals of the organization and challenges of the participants. What are you really trying to accomplish with this program? Spend time up front in discovery and validation of where you are today and where you want to go in the future. Once understood, outline the competencies to be used as a foundation for learning and to close performance gaps. Completing this exercise will take a little more time, but the results will be worth it, allowing the program to be more “sticky.” It will also ensure you choose a program that truly suits the needs of the organization.
  2. Be mindful of the Theory of Constraints. When you solve a problem in one area, sometimes the solution creates a problem somewhere else in the organization. A comprehensive understanding of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and ultimately root causes creating the need for a leadership development program is required to prevent trading one issue for another. This often hidden push-pull between problems and solutions in different areas can also be a reason a program fails. For example, no amount of development for future leaders can break through a thick layer of micromanaging decisions by upper management.
  3. Less is sometimes more. When developing a leadership program, go deep in fully developing a key concept or principle versus teaching principles, approaches, and skills at a surface level. There is a fine line between learning and practical application. Being prescriptive in the program with well-constructed tools, case studies, steps, and materials will equip the participants to be successful. The best programs take a cumulative approach to presenting information, using various multimedia forms to communicate — and prioritize hands-on learning. Learning how to be a leader is no different from learning how to do anything else, so consider approaches that have been effective in other areas of your organization.
  4. Think through organization dynamics. When newly trained employees return to work excited to institute their new learnings, many times they hit a wall. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the way the organization works — dynamics that include work processes, other team members’ approaches, decision rights, information flow, reward programs, structures, reporting, etc. The program needs to consider these factors as it prepares participants to implement their new skills. If this seems like a lot to consider, map out a sample path for a newly trained future leader. What happens when they sit at their desk with this new knowledge? Are they empowered to use it? Given chances to exhibit it? Rewarded for making the effort?
  5. Introduce support enablers. When the newly skilled individual returns to the organization, support mechanisms need to be in place. Employees need a clear case for change that supports new practices and behaviors, and have mentors and coaches to support their efforts overtly and visibly. Employees will also need feedback loops to improve performance. The importance of leadership development “champions” cannot be understated. These people not only provide support but can also identify issues with the above considerations like organizational dynamics that are blocking progress.

Leadership development has become essential to thriving organizations. It serves both the business and individual, providing each with momentum to grow. By understanding the landscape before building a program, organizations exponentially increase their chance of success. For more information on how to build a successful leadership program, email us at