Differentiating Leadership Development - Design Recommendations for Leadership Development

Differentiating Leadership Development - Design Recommendations for Leadership Development
Summary: Executive leadership development shares similarities with other learning programs. For example, it must direct itself to the specific needs of its audience, and learner reflection is important to increase retention for on-the-job application. For the senior learner, application of knowledge and skills is tantamount to success of their company. A support structure should be in place with regular reminders to help the senior leader apply new knowledge and behaviors in how they lead to affect change

Differentiating Leadership Development

Executive Summary

To identify a context of current offerings in leadership development, a Google search of "senior leader development in executive strategy and management" was completed. The following programs came up:

  • Kellogg Northwestern
  • MIT Sloan
  • Wharton
  • University of Chicago
  • Harvard Exec Education

Further review of recent research studies on leadership development at the executive level identified content areas where leaders may have skill and knowledge gaps that could negatively impact organizational change, growth and success.   From this limited high-level examination several key areas were identified:

  1. Any leadership offering must differentiate itself in content and delivery mode from other learning programs geared to a less experienced group of learners.
  2. Advanced leadership learning must be presented within the context of organizational needs.
  3. Leadership development must include a strong application component.
  4. Leadership doesn't work alone and there needs to be recognition of the need for interpersonal and communication skills development.


A high-level review of effective leadership development suggests knowledge gain is only one piece of the puzzle. More importantly, is a process orientation of how to apply new skills to organizational implementation needs.  Evidence from various research studies of senior leaders and their bosses, indicate that leaders may have skill set gaps that don't allow them to successfully lead their organization's strategic direction or meet defined goals. If leaders are to manage and execute strategies, it is important to recognize a leader's role within the organization, which includes an approach that works across, and up and down in the organization. Leaders don't work in a vacuum. Research Evidence The DDI Global Leadership Forecast 2011 includes 2,600 organizations, 1,897 HR professionals, and 12,423 leaders from 74 countries. The report found that 55% of organizations surveyed will be increasing budget for leadership development in 2012, while 7% reported a decrease in leadership development spend. The remaining organizations reported no change to their leadership development budgets.  DDI also asked organizations to identify the most important leadership skills during the last 3 years. It identified the 3 top critical skills for leaders in the last 3 years as:

  • Driving and managing change,
  • Executing organizational strategy, and
  • Coaching and developing others.

Additionally, respondents identified those skills that will be required for success in the coming 3 years, with the first two not changing. The new skills include:

  • Identifying and developing future talent, and
  • Fostering innovation.

The report outlines the importance of these new skills.  The leaders of tomorrow will need to be talent scouts, always on the lookout for the best internal and external talent. And once they find them, they will need to accelerate their development.    Fostering creativity and innovation is another new priority.....The number of leaders citing innovation as a critical skill increased more than for any other skill. According to The Boston Consulting Group (2010), 72 percent of executives list innovation as a top priority, the highest percentage since it began conducting the annual research. The same study shows that those who focus on innovation enjoy up to a six-fold advantage on total shareholder return versus their industry peers. IBM's Capitalizing on Complexity (2010) study also reports that CEOs place a premium on leaders who can drive innovation, rating it as the most important leadership quality.

Design Recommendations for Leadership Development

Since CEOs identify creativity as the most important skill for leading their organizations, a leadership program must be creative, and innovative in its approach --creating a program in the manner that organizations must lead.  Jared L. Bleak and Robert M. Fulmer discuss how to Strategically Develop Strategic Leaders in the 2009 Best Practices in Leadership Development Handbook and state the following:  Research has shown that when leadership development is seen as a strategic objective, in and of itself, and when this development is tied closely to the strategy and needs of the business, excellent organizational results follow.  Their premise, based on research of the of five best practice leadership development companies - Caterpillar, Cisco Systems, PepsiCo, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Washington Group International- indicates that leadership development is most successful when doing the following:

  • tying leadership culture, values, practices, and development to business strategy,
  • creating strategically relevant collective learning opportunities,
  • integrating a leadership development architecture with various development initiatives for maximum impact, and
  • using leadership development to support the execution of business strategy and long-term needs to develop individual competencies while also building immediately needed organizational capability to address business challenges.

Understanding the needs and challenges of senior leaders can help determine how to build a program directed to this target group. Listed below are high-level parameters of how a program for senior leaders might take shape.

  1. Leadership development at the most senior level requires programming at an advanced level so that it's perceived as "differentiated" from learning opportunities directed to a less experienced learner.
  2. Senior leaders need training in content areas not usually required of others, including such topics as: business acumen, strategic planning and implementation, and business financial planning.
  3. For senior leaders, it is important to share challenges and stories with peers. A community of practice can include a cross organizational and cross industry collaborative working environment that offers feedback, support, and input and advice to members based on personal experiences and new learning outcomes.
  4. In defining leadership development, there needs to be a clear value proposition for the organization, and definable, measurable individual goals that tie to organizational needs and success.
  5. An identified risk factor for organizations offering leadership development to emerging or current leaders is retention. Ensuring there is a process in place for managing development while also managing career paths and advancement, is an important component of a leadership program. (Advising companies on career and growth planning to ensure leaders' retention is a secondary requirement of leadership development.)
  6. A leadership program must include prerequisite self-directed learning, assessments and evaluation.