4 Key Elements for a Successful Leadership Program

Karen Marino | Aug 27, 2015

According to a Retention and Leadership Survey study done by Harris Poll (commissioned by Saba), 39 percent of companies surveyed offered leadership development programs, but only 15 percent of employees at those firms felt that the training they were receiving in any way prepared them for leadership positions. Those numbers, and a little math, tell us that about 60% of all leadership programs are failing their employees.

What’s missing?

There’s no one answer to that question—programs, of course, take many different forms. But we have found that failing programs are usually missing one or more key elements needed to make them successful:

#1 Measure Improvement Through Benchmarks

Too many organizations throw their high-potential employees into training without first seeing where they are today. But without measuring where you are, how can you see how far you’ve come?

You can’t. So the first key to a successful leadership training program is to take some benchmarks. A 360 degree survey is a good place to start for employees on the executive path. Such a survey would not only allow you to measure the effect that leadership training has, it also helps you to select or customize your program to address the specific needs and challenges of your leaders.

If you’re not at a stage where a 360 survey makes sense, there are other benchmarks you can use. Employee personality assessments and cognitive tests can be a good way to screen for future leaders. And pre-tests are often part of leadership training packages; use those too.

#2 Keep it in the “Real World”

One of the biggest mistakes that leadership program facilitators make is that they assume that whisking people off to some campus-like setting, away from distraction and work-a-day worries, will improve learning.

Sure, if all you want to do is pour over academic articles about leadership, or meditate on the meaning leadership, that will work. But many of those same studies show that retention is low for information learned in a classroom context when you move into the “real world.” That’s because we all learn better when the information presented is relevant, practical, and actually related to our work-a-day world¸ not when it is abstract and academic.

So, when choosing or crafting your leadership training, be sure to keep it in the real world. Train on-site, when you can. Role-play situations that actually come up in the workplace. And focus on providing skills that can help leaders deal with real-world situations. Providing a library of practical content that leaders can access for continued training and improvement isn’t a bad idea, either.

#3 Practice Through Mentoring… & More

There are two great ways to “learn” leadership: seeing it in action, and trying it yourself. So, whenever you can pair new or up-and-coming leaders with more senior leaders, do so. The senior leader will gain something in the mentoring process, as will the person being mentored.

Of course, there might be some practical obstacles here. There might not be enough mentors to go around. And the mentors you do have might not have the time to dedicate to intense, one-on-one training. Even if they have the time, there’s no guarantee they will cover everything the new leader needs to know.

So what’s an organization to do? The best approach is a hybrid approach. Assign your employees mentors, but supplement the mentor relationship with more standard types of training. For example, you can have groups meet in small workshops to role-play different scenarios a leader might face. Or you can keep a company archive of useful training videos that the mentor can point their mentee to if they need further guidance or training on a topic that crops up.

#4 Develop Retention Programs for Current and Future Leaders

Simply providing good leadership training will go a long way towards retention. Just knowing that they have a future with the company, and that it includes an opportunity for growth and challenge, is enough to keep your most high-powered employees around.

But there’s no harm in hedging your bets, either. Invest in employee recognition programs that make them feel good about what they (and their team, and the company as a whole) has achieved. Give new leaders new tasks and the flexibility to tackle them on their own terms. Then empower them to succeed. All great leadership programs make ongoing measurement and retention a large part of their strategy.

Of course, you might be worried about all this investment in different kinds of programs just to develop the next generation of leaders. But consider Richard Branson’s response to his CFO when asked about the amount his company was spending on training:

CFO:

“I can’t believe we’re looking to double our training budget next year. What happens if we train these people and then they leave and go somewhere else?”

Sir Richard Branson:

“What happens if we don’t train them and they stay?”

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