Design Leadership Development Programs That Are Actually Effective

You have a lot of choices to make. Maybe you’ve been invited to join a leadership development program or have been assigned the responsibility of developing leaders in your company. Regardless of which role you play in the organization, choosing the right approach and eventually, the right training programs is an important decision because the rise and fall of your company’s future depend on the quality of leadership overall. It doesn’t matter if the leaders are new leaders, senior managers, functional leaders, or senior management. Helping leaders acquire the key skills at every level of the organization has a significant impact on your bottom line.

As the rate of change in business increases, the bar for leaders is higher as business challenges increase in complexity and diversity. Companies hence need to include effective training as part of their corporate strategy. All successful organizations have successful leaders – people who can engage employees, manage change, discover new possibilities, and strong strategy execution.

What is a Leadership Development Program?

A leadership development program is a structured intervention and commitment to help employees be future-ready. Highly dependent on context, companies need to evaluate the effectiveness of traditional methods of leadership development that include on-the-job training, mentorship, and formal education. These programs have long been used to invest in internal growth and equip high-potential employees with the skills they need to take on senior roles in the company in the near term. But as the concept of “good” leadership qualities has evolved, training programs also need to keep up with the change.

What makes a program good, then?

While the context of each company’s needs may be slightly different, there are common elements you can look for. Preparing future leaders to be agile is now often a need, not a luxury. A whole-organization approach is also needed these days as employees go through the phase “The Great Reshuffle”, disrupting your succession plans rapidly. Hinging on the need for human-centered leadership, these then form a broad base for the skills needed. The continued emphasis on designing the best employee experience as part of the corporate culture also puts pressure on the modes of training. Traditional approaches simply do not work anymore. Experiential learning, personalization, learning in bite-sizes and on flexible schedules, and just-in-time learning to address specific challenges are some characteristics of programs that will increase employee commitment and effectiveness.

What leadership skills are important for leaders today?
Read our article here.

Why Does Leadership Training Fail?

Since the 1950s, leadership development programs have been problematic for companies. Companies around the world have invested billions in executive educations and employee training with the hope of getting richer returns on their investments.

It was found that less than half of the leaders who enrolled in a leadership development program succeeded. The rest failed.

But, research by McKinsey showed that only 11 percent of leaders showed improved performance following leadership development.

Considering the billions of dollars spent on training and educating leaders annually, the return that companies get back in terms of leadership is definitely not enough to justify the investment done by companies.

So why do leadership development programs fail? Here are some reasons.

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Companies face several challenges when they try to implement leadership development programs. Off-the-shelf leadership courses designed years ago might not work in today’s business environment, so it is important to provide corporate education programs that are aligned to the current needs of individual companies.

Organizations then should consider updating their leadership development programs to fit the needs of their leaders, managers, and businesses now and in the future.

2. Poor internal onboarding programs for new managers 

Now that you have hired the right person for the right job – How important is it to onboard this new hire to the organization? What are the key success factors for your leaders in achieving goals?

After all, you do not want to lose a talented hire due to poor onboarding. It is important to start your new manager on the right foot from day one. Research has shown that the retention of new hires is difficult without effective onboarding because the mutual expectations are not met. Not only that, it costs 20% of the job’s base salary to replace an employee so this is an aspect you want to pay attention to in your organizational development process.

Onboarding programs are hence critical to the success of new leaders. With the current increase in remote or new ways of working, make sure you tailor your program around the new mediums of delivery.

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3. Lack of motivation to continuously gain new leadership skills

A lot of people who are hired for leadership positions are promoted based on past results and they feel no need to keep themselves up-to-date. Since they are already successful, why should they learn new skills?

This mentality, however, is detrimental to a business and a leader. Undeniably, a business strategy needs to evolve with time. A leader needs to develop strong business acumen and a new leadership style or to engage the younger teams and the global workforce.

Beyond skills training, this fixed mindset impedes a leader’s development in the future. Leaders need to recognize that continuous development is one of the elements in their personal leadership strategy so that they continue to grow and thrive.

One strategy is to motivate from the top. If teams see senior leadership team leading by example and being at the forefront of developing leadership skills, business knowledge, deep technical expertise, then people will be motivated to improve their leadership abilities.

4. All theory and no practice

What separates knowledge from information?

Knowledge is something leaders can apply in their decision-making processes while information is only a resource stored away. Left unused, knowledge will not help to attain any business results.

Before choosing leadership programs or skills training for the managers, senior leaders, or teams on your team consider user experience. Ensure that these courses are designed in such a way that they lead to real changes. These could show up as increased self-awareness, shifts in attitude, receptive abilities, altered behaviors, or heightened motivations.

Coaching is one highly effective way to translate information into knowledge. That is why many executive education programs incorporate executive coaching for leaders.

One thing is certain – without bridging the gap between theory and practice, you will see very little change– be it an increase in self-awareness, self-confidence, improvement in management skills, or team performance.

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How Much Are Effective Leadership Development Programs Worth to Your Organization?

High-quality leadership programs can improve your organizational achievements. Beyond return on investment on revenue and profitability, effective programs will develop strong leadership practices leading to a robust talent management process, high workforce engagement, reduce employee turnover, improve well-being, and the ability to thrive in the uncertain future. Developing strong internal leadership by leveraging either internal or external leadership courses is strategy business leaders need to pay close attention to.

Here are some observable behaviors you might see should you have an effective leadership development program in place.

1. Better communication skills, better team collaboration

High organizational performance starts with good communication between team members and the manager. With employees increasingly expecting to be led in new ways, managers are tasked with modifying their current approach and incorporating a variety of leadership styles.

When it comes to leadership, leaders have broad context in many scenarios. They must be able to interact with senior executives at strategy meetings, provide constructive feedback and coaching to teams, or address challenges with customers. In order to build strong leadership capability, one must possess excellent communication skills and a good development program helps you achieve that.

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2. High-performance culture

If you want to improve organizational culture, start with every leader at every level. With a good leadership development program, you are investing in the future of your organization by investing in your people. A more agile and responsive organization will result from this.

A good leadership program championed by the human resources department will be insufficient to change a company’s culture for the better. However, if managers and leaders have skills regarding how to positively manage their teams, you’ll see increased motivation levels of team members and improved business results.

3. High employee engagement leads to productivity and profitability

Effective leadership programs are key to bringing out the best in people. When leaders are respectful, trustworthy, and caring toward team members, those members feel more motivated to do their best in their work. This makes them more productive and willing to give back to the company.

According to research by Gallup, managers account for a 70% variance of employee engagement. The presence of great leaders is commonly associated with employees who are committed to their careers, enjoy what they do, and are engaged. With a high level of employee engagement comes happiness and a lower turnover rate–resulting in higher profitability. 

4. Developing skills and attitudes necessary for the Future of Work

The pace of change is accelerating and the future workplace will be different than it is today. Research shows that in the next 10 years, almost 50% of traditional jobs may disappear as technology transforms the way companies work. It means new job roles are emerging. New skills and attitudes are hence, required.

Most organizations probably didn’t predict the extent of these changes, but now need leaders who can take a futurist approach to make sure their organization is prepared for the future. These future-oriented leaders are agile and not afraid to take risks in order to continue pushing forward with plans. They have the ability to influence change within their company to ensure corporate longevity.

Types of Leadership Development

Some believe that leaders are born while others think that they are made. In any case, successful organizations are the ones with a strong leadership development program in place and who consistently transform their good leaders into great ones.

There are different types of leadership development strategies. As you go through the menu, you might find yourself more familiar with one leadership development program than the other. Perhaps it is time for you to explore beyond the standard menu. You might be surprised by what you will find.

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1. Executive Education

These are academic training offered by business colleges and universities. There is a wide range of relevant business topics that each execution education program covers and some executives who have experienced them before described the benefits like changing perspectives, widening their horizons, and establishing strong business networks. Top business schools have well-designed programs that are highly sought after.

Executive training courses are offered at a varied price point with those offered by top-notch business schools commanding a hefty price tag. Many of these programs would also include a leadership assessment coupled with some executive coaching sessions where qualified coaches work with these senior leaders to unpack and deepen their learning further, reaping full benefits from the program.

2. Executive Coaching

Executive coaching has been gaining popularity and recognized as a highly effective way of gaining leadership skills that are immediately relevant and put into practice.

Commonly confused with mentoring, coaching and mentoring are in fact two different leadership development programs. While there are similarities in the medium where both involve two parties in conversations either virtually or face to face, the nature of conversations is very different.

Mentoring is more commonly offered in-house and led by a leader who has more experience in a similar field as the mentee. Coaching, however, can be offered in-house or externally. Generally, as the seniority of executives increases, they tend to leverage external coaches as they value the neutral viewpoint and to be free from conflict of interest. Psychological safety becomes a valued element that many executives look out for.

Here is our blog post on executive coaching and its benefits so check it out here.

3. Online Learning

Online learning is a cost-effective and dynamic way of developing leaders through smart technology, creating multiple opportunities for leaders to learn. Depending on the design of the online course, this leadership training mode has increased in popularity over the years. The range of training programs continues to expand. Some may like a training course that focuses on skills while others may focus on attitudes. The alluring features are program participants can customize, set the pace, and learn at any time, anywhere with almost no travel cost. That’s why a program like the Advanced Course in Agile Thinking and Development is highly popular among busy professionals.

On top of standard leadership skills-related topics, personal wellbeing courses are also gaining popularity among leaders.

Some leading business schools also offer online courses through selected executive education platforms. This further increases the number of options available to leaders and managers at an affordable cost.

4. Conferences and/or Workshops

In-person conferences and workshops are great for networking. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been limited but with virtual conferences, the world is your playground.

Some countries are slowly opening up to gatherings, including seminars, conferences, and workshops. But this is one type of leadership development that will help leaders in an organization to enhance their market knowledge and leadership skills. Many leaders take the opportunity to practice networking skills, and this in itself, can also be regarded as essential skills training for leaders.

5. In-House Training

In-house training can be led by in-house experts from human resources, learning & development, or talent development staff who are equipped with facilitation skills and curriculum design. There are also hybrid models where external coaches and consultants are involved at certain stages due to specific knowledge or skills sets they have.

In-house leadership training is made-to-measure so that they meet the need of the business exactly. In some organizations, leadership assessment and debrief are part of the training program. Coupling that with external coaching adds another dimension to the leadership development experience. This, in my experience, is a model that presents huge opportunities for growth for executives and is worth exploring.

5 Characteristics of Effective Leadership Skills Training

Creating an effective leadership development program is highly important to your business. As you look at the various elements of instructional design and delivery, make sure you incorporate adult learning principles.

Training designed based on the needs and expectations of participants will attitude and behavior changes in managers that ultimately lead to business success.

Below, I introduce ACESENCE’s 5R Training Framework which incorporates adult learning principles and bridges the gap between theory and practice. This is where leadership principles come to life for every single leader ACESENCE works with because they can apply their understanding as skills.

ACESENCE's 5R Training Framework
ACESENCE’s 5R Training Framework

1. Relevant

A training program needs to be relevant to participants. When leaders can see connections between the goals and their current challenges, they will be motivated and prepared to be stretched.

Adult learners are also self-directed and self-motivated. That’s why establishing a strong ‘why’ by connecting the benefits to their immediate challenges creates a sense of urgency in leaders to want to meet the program objectives. This helps leaders feel motivated and committed to achieving the objectives.

2. Relatable

Drawing on real-life experiences and leadership challenges, leaders learn better and faster. At ACESENCE, we bring real stories that help participants understand the dilemmas and challenges leaders face in their organizations and co-create relevant solutions.

Our book, “8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility” is one example where leaders learn through relatable stories. With a new mindset, a fresh perspective, or a new strategy to experiment with, relatable case studies increase the motivation for participants to acquire new leadership skills, which leads us to the next characteristic.

3. Refreshing

A training program serves no purpose if participants are not excited or engaged. As you select a program for your organization or business units, pick something that is designed to invite new insights, the latest market trends, and leadership demands. Look out for design elements like dialogues, team coaching, or reflection because insightful conversations are highly effective in energizing adult participants.

Refreshing conversations where teams will uncover meaning in specific leadership topics often lead to team synergy and that builds a strong collective voice.

4. Retrospective

While the focus is on the future, the past holds many opportunities and learning to be mined. Past mistakes inform organizations of ways that do no work in order to formulate new methods that work. This further reinforces the relevance and relatedness of the program. Starting from the past or current practices is a comfortable way for leaders to stretch into the zone of the unknown with minimal discomfort. This strategy helps leaders envision the ‘next possible step’ instead of the endpoint, which could become overwhelming at times.

Accompanying the retrospective process is reflection, allowing leaders to make sense of what they have learned. By generating thought-provoking questions and creative exercises, participants reflect on their leadership challenges in the past and how they can use their new skills to take action going forward. The closer we get to having our learners engaged constructively in committing to taking action, the more they will meet the development goals.

5. Repeatable Actions

How do you measure the success of a leadership training program? Ideally, a leader should be able to exhibit a new attitude and use the skills right away. In the program design, ask how participants will have opportunities to practice and gain confidence in applying the new skills. At ACESENCE, we incorporate a series of practices and obtain feedback within a safe environment. Our belief is that it is the small steps compounded over time, that lead to significant leadership skills improvement. That’s why it is so important to bring leadership principles to life.

Now that you know the 5 characteristics of effective leadership training programs, benchmark your current. How is the current state of your programs? What things could you change to improve it? Consider how you improve your leadership training programs by making them more relevant, relatable, refreshing, retrospective, and repeatable.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Take advantage of Chuen Chuen’s extensive experience coaching leaders worldwide and her deep expertise in designing agile leadership corporate training solutions for your teams. No matter which stage of leadership you are at, we can partner with you and meet your business needs. Explore our executive coaching programscorporate training coursesor hire Chuen Chuen as your speaker so that your organization will become agile and adaptive.

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