What makes a leadership development programme successful?

What makes leadership development initiatives fail? And what can you do about it?


Having worked in international development for 20+ years – specifically in building management and leadership capacity – I have seen many leadership development programmes. I would categorise them on a spectrum of good, bad, and ugly, from well thought-out programmes with a range of interventions that promote a combination of being, doing, self-reflection and learning; generic training packages expected to transform any manager into an exceptional leader, to development that’s simply non-existent.

Similarly, in my roles as coach and lecturer, I help clients individually to develop as leaders, and organisationally, to develop comprehensive leadership development programmes. Regardless of my role, one key observation is that any successful leadership development means digging and getting your hands dirty – reflecting, experimenting, learning, failing, improving, consolidating…

Chris Cebollero says, “It is the senior leadership’s responsibility to invest, develop and grow organizational leaders. This will ensure those leaders are equipped to inspire, motivate and engage the workforce.”  Claudio Feser and Nicolai Nielsen also argue, in a recent McKinsey article, that ‘In turbulent times like these, developing leaders truly matters – yet more than half of executives we talk to say their leadership development initiatives fail.’

Before exploring what sets good leadership development apart, let’s identify some common language around Leadership Development.


What is Leadership Development?

Whether it involves an individual or an organisation, it’s the system or processes employed to develop leaders and leadership thinking and behaviours. This generally focuses on aspirational, rather than actual leaders. It provides learning opportunities to enable people to take a role higher than their current one – with a view to them developing the skills, qualities, knowledge and experience to lead an organisation or department.


What does Leadership Development consist of?

Following the identification of people with potential to be leaders, leadership development comprises all the components of support to prepare them for a leadership role. It largely consists of training, coaching, mentoring, and experiential learning.

What is Leadership Development? Purpose & Practice (University of Exeter Centre for Leadership Studies) summarises the major European research study conducted by Mabey and Ramirez (2004, p.20), ranking managers’ & HR’s development preferences as:

  1. “internal skills programmes
  2. external courses, seminars and conferences
  3. mentoring/coaching
  4. formal qualifications
  5. in-company job-rotation
  6. external assignments, placements and/or secondments
  7. E-learning.

And let’s not forget stretch assignments and sponsorship. There may well be more!


‘The Good’ Leadership development

In Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders, Deborah Rowland   details “four factors that lie at the heart of good, practical leadership development: making it experiential; influencing participants’ “being,” not just their “doing”; placing it into its wider, systemic context; and enrolling faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas.”

A coach or mentor will help in most of these areas – especially around ‘being’ and the mindset for leadership. Whether they seek promotion or a new role in their current organisation, or in another agency, a climate of leadership support and development will aid progress for the leader and for the business they work in. Organisations – especially in the Development sector, in which I specialise – sometimes need support to establish the culture and environment in which leadership can fully develop.

Chris Cebollero states that there are 4 steps to a good leadership programme:

  1. “Outline the qualities and skills of each leadership position in the organization…
  2. Assess the leader’s current knowledge and proficiency in the necessary skill…
  3. Develop a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP)…
  4. Ensure there are regularly scheduled meetings with the leader.”

Certainly, defining the leadership qualities and skills required in the role or the organisation will help to focus any initiatives; measure potential and performance against competencies or attributes; ensure that any development initiatives enhances these areas, and grow each leader. Having a training and development plan to document skills, along with opportunities to reflect on progress, are also important to further enable leaders’ development.

There are benefits all round. Cabollero concludes: “Leadership development cannot be left to chance. Organizations should be proactive in setting goals, assisting in growth and achieving the very best leader possible for ultimate organizational success.”


‘The Bad and the Ugly’ – Leadership Development

 ‘Anything is better than nothing’ often makes sense, but in the case of leadership development, this thinking is suspect. Programmes that often fail to achieve desired outcomes are: non-contextualised leadership programmes that fail to connect the dots between organisational values, strategic direction and desired leadership competencies; cookie-cutter programmes; overreliance on one method (e.g. formal training), and lack of ongoing monitoring and support.


How to be Good!

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It,” Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader say:

“This is the approach to talent development that we advocate, in six basic steps:

  1. The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction.
  2. After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.
  3. Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design.
  4. The organization adds training where needed.
  5. Success in changing behavior is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
  6. Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behavior.”

In “Your Leadership Development Program Needs an Overhaul Milan Samani and Robert J. Thomas advocate developing leadership – not by sending people off on courses, but by creating opportunities to develop leadership on the job, summarised in three phases:

  1. “Identify: Let them innovate…
  2. Develop: Let them improvise…
  3. Retain: Let them actually lead.”

Investment in leadership development can pay huge dividends.


If you feel that you or your organisation would benefit from leadership development, including coaching and mentoring, please get in touch to explore the possibilities open to you. I look forward to hearing from you!


Also, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.


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Email me: palena@unabridgedleadership.com

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