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Best leadership development programmes: what do they do so well?

More money is spent on leadership development than any other area of corporate training. It is a ginormous industry, and for good reason: creating an effective leadership development solution is essential for any organisation aiming to cultivate strong leaders who can sustainably drive company growth.
But what exactly makes for a brilliant leadership development solution? Which leaders should have access to this development? And what elements simply can’t be missed for a programme to be a success? Let’s jump in.

What is leadership development?

Put simply, leadership development is the process of enhancing an individual’s ability to lead within an organisation. However, any development worth its salt should also focus on the leader as an individual – how do they function healthily and effectively, what are their limiting beliefs, and what is their vision for the future? It is through answering these questions that a leader can reach their potential.

Typically, leadership development tends to occur through the following stages:

  1. Self-awareness and mindset: Self-awareness is a critical component of leadership (most of us can relate to the pain of dealing with a boss or colleague who lacks basic self-awareness). However, it is also critical for the development process itself; the right mindset creates an openness for learning and is the foundation for further skills development.
  2. Skills enhancement: There are certain skills that are crucial for effective leaders to master – such as communication, EQ, strategic thinking and resilience. Leadership development provides the time and structure in which leaders can consciously pick up and practise these skills.
  3. Behavioural transformation: Beyond skill-building, brilliant leadership requires conscious shifts in behaviour. This means understanding and adjusting one’s beliefs, attitudes and habits to align with the version of themselves that they want to be. Leaders will learn to model the behaviours they wish to see in their teams, ultimately setting the organisational tone.
  4. Organisational alignment: In order to ensure that the development is relevant to the organisation, it is important for leadership development to be aligned to the business’s needs, goals and vision for the future. This happens through careful planning and expert facilitation.
  5. Experiential and continuous learning: Outside of formal development sessions, leadership development should ideally be infused into the day-to-day of the leaders. This could look like on-demand learning, coaching sessions or real-world projects and events. It also means regular conversations on the topics of development – this is often when the most important realisations occur. Encouraging continuous learning ensures that the skills and behaviours are being practised in the flow of work.

When it comes to development, only about 10% of growth comes from expertise. The remaining 90% comes from conversations around the topic (20%) and real-life experience (70%).

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What types of leadership development programmes are available?

Leadership development comes in all shapes and sizes. There really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ in this industry. Elements like budget, time constraints, company size and seniority will all impact what approach is most suited. Below is a breakdown of some of the most common approaches to leadership development.

  • Online courses: These are popular when the scale is large. They are flexible and convenient, allowing leaders to learn at their own pace. However – be wary of online courses when it comes to return on investment. It can be far harder for leaders to feel invested in a course without direct interaction with facilitators or coaches, and therefore the change impact will likely be limited.
  • Coaching: Another popular solution, 1:1 coaching creates space for personalised development. This can be great for individual goal setting and overcoming specific challenges, and can also work for groups, such as executive team coaching. There are many online coaching platforms that make it easy to coach at scale nowadays. However, aspects such as the number of sessions per person and the quality of the coaches are key here, as surface-level or ‘transactional’ coaching is unlikely to give you a return on your investment.
  • Workshops or seminars: These provide short-term learning experiences that could be perfect for introducing new concepts or creating networking opportunities. They can be budget-friendly and provide immediate value. Be aware that a one-off training day won’t deliver long-term change – for this, you will need a continuous learning journey.
  • Multi-dimensional programmes: A comprehensive leadership development programme will combine various elements such as in-person and virtual masterclasses, coaching, dedicated time with senior leaders, feedback tools and peer group learning. They will most likely be the largest investment option, and that is because these programmes are designed for long-term and sustainable transformation for organisational impact.

Leadership development comes in all shapes and sizes. There really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ in this industry. Elements like budget, time constraints, company size and seniority will all impact what approach is most suited. Below is a breakdown of some of the most common approaches to leadership development.

pros and cons to leadership development Ivy House

What makes a leadership development programme effective?

The top three most important factors for whether or not a leadership programme will be effective:

  1. It needs to matter to individuals. People only change when it matters to them, but the problem with many leadership programmes is that they don’t make the learning matter enough to individuals.
  2. Change needs to be explicit, not implicit. Change doesn’t happen by chance. Not only do leaders need to want to change, they also need to know how. That’s why any programme we partner on will lay the foundations of behavioural change before developing further leadership skills.
  3. It needs to be integrated into an organisation. During the design phase, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of the organisation’s goals, culture and pain points. Then, the development must be aligned to the vision – so that the learning is completely relevant to that organisation.

It is important to recognise your starting point. What is your current leadership culture and what is its impact on your organisation? Are existing leadership practices within your organisation inadvertently stifling the very growth you aim to achieve? Understanding your context is key to choosing the right development solution.

In order to ensure success, here are some further elements to consider when building a programme:

  • Contextual relevance: One size does not fit all in leadership development. Each organisation has a unique culture, structure, and set of goals. A rigorous discovery process should precede the design of any leadership programme to ensure it addresses specific organisational needs and outcomes.
  • Behavioural change focus: Effective leadership development is built on a foundation of behavioural change. Programmes should delve into participants’ beliefs and mindsets, understanding the interplay between thoughts, emotions, and actions. This approach ensures that learning translates into real-world behavioural adjustments necessary for achieving company objectives​​.
  • Coach-based approach to delivery: There is a big difference between facilitation of content and coaching. Research shows that it is the combination of both which will have the largest impact on an organisation.
  • Time and space: The problem with the majority of training is that people want a ‘quick-fix’ solution. However, for real change to occur, people need time and space to process the learning and put it into practice. Ideally, this would mean substantial breaks in between training days, interspersed with coaching and other engagement elements. It also means that a journey of continuous learning after the ‘official programme’ ends can be hugely beneficial.

What skills do leaders need?

The majority of experts agree that skills such as adaptability, emotional intelligence and communication are fundamental to good leadership in the modern age. The practice of ‘skill-stacking’ has also become popular in recent years. But aside from the obvious answers, what skills should your leaders be developing?

  1. Self-awareness. Leaders who are unaware of their impact are as obvious as they are dangerous. This is one of the main causes of employees looking elsewhere for work – especially when they feel that they can’t give their leaders feedback. Leaders need to become aware of how they are perceived, what impact they have on teams and how they fit into the organisation.
  2. Vulnerability. The ability to be vulnerable and honest in leadership can be rare, but it is extremely powerful. Allowing others to see you for who you are, rather than the ‘mask’ of perfection many leaders try to cover up with, will build trust within your teams. It will also encourage open communication and your team will be far more likely to open up about their challenges – creating opportunities for radical support and improvement.
  3. Showing recognition. Traditional leadership styles do not encourage frequent recognition or appreciation. Many people are taught that they should not ask for it either. However, recognition is a basic human need, and leaders would do well to use it as an encouragement tool. Outwardly sharing positive feedback will make your team feel valued and create a generally positive culture.
  4. Human leadership. It has been said that leadership is the practice of imperfect humans leading other imperfect humans.When leaders start to operate from a ‘human’ standpoint, and recognise that nobody has all the answers but we are all capable of doing our best, magic happens.

There are a whole host of skills that leaders can develop, and we explore some of the most crucial ones for modern leaders in our white paper.

However, the most important factor regarding skills development is, surprisingly, not which skills you choose. It is that they are practised, consistently. Knowing the theory behind the skill is not enough – you need to close the ‘knowing-doing gap’ in order to make a real difference.

It can be hugely beneficial to work with a development provider who has expertise in creating behavioural change, in order to close that gap.

33.Knowing Gap Ivy House

Who should attend a leadership development programme?

According to research, organisations that invest in leadership development across all levels see greater improvements in performance and engagement. Therefore, for best results, leadership development should ideally be available to individuals across the organisation.

One of the decisions HR teams often face is where to begin. Do you start with senior leadership and take a ‘top-down’ approach, or begin at the bottom and benefit from a prolonged impact as talented individuals rise through the company?

Anna Vila-Pouca, Head of Leadership Development at M&S gives some brilliant advice for HR leaders facing this conundrum: ‘go where the energy of the company is’. Ask yourself where the impact will be most felt? Who is calling out for development right now? And what level of leadership will create wider returns on investment throughout the organisation?

Ideal participants for leadership development programmes include:

  1. Emerging leaders: High-potential employees who show promise for future leadership roles. Developing these individuals early ensures a steady pipeline of talent​​.
  2. Middle managers: Those who are currently managing teams and need to enhance their leadership capabilities. Middle managers play a crucial role in translating organisational strategy into action​​.
  3. Senior e sxecutives: Top leaders who need to refine their strategic and leadership skills to drive the organisation forward. Continuous development helps senior leaders stay ahead of industry trends and challenges​​ and ensures they are working well as a leadership team.

How to measure the results of a leadership programme?

Most HR teams will understand the pain of having to demonstrate ROI on their leadership development initiatives. However, there are a few key pieces of data to collect throughout and after a programme that will draw a picture of its successes as well as areas for improvement.

Organisational goals should be clear from the start so that the programme can be well aligned to the company’s vision for the future.

Methods to measure leadership programme impact:

  1. Delegate feedback: How did participants find the experience? Did they feel it was a worthwhile use of their time? How much did they learn that they did not know before?
  2. Emerging themes: Leadership development can be a goldmine for understanding an organisation’s culture more deeply, if you pay attention. What themes are emerging from the delegate feedback? What did the delivery team notice?
  3. What’s changed post-programme: By following up with delegates and their line managers post-programme, you can measure shifts in mindset and behaviour. What has changed for them? How has their performance improved and what areas for improvement have become evident?
  4. Performance metrics: Tracking changes in performance indicators such as productivity, promotion rates, meeting targets and employee retention provides concrete evidence of the programme’s effectiveness​​.
  5. Cultural assessments: While performance metrics show part of the puzzle, so much of the benefits of leadership development will be felt in the cultural shifts. Gathering employee data on engagement, team effectiveness, wellbeing and leadership dynamics will allow you to see the day-to-day impact of the training.

Why run a leadership development programme?

Running a leadership development programme is beneficial for many reasons, the most important (and obvious) being: stronger leaders lead to stronger organisations. According to research by the Centre for Creative Leadership, effective leadership development can significantly improve organisational performance and employee engagement​​​​.

Other benefits to running a leadership development programme include:

  • Talent retention: Career growth opportunities are one of the leading factors for talent retention and employee loyalty. Leadership and talent development programmes are a clear signal to the individual that the organisation is investing in their future at the business.
  • Business performance: Strong leadership drives better decision-making, innovation, and overall business performance. Leaders who are well-equipped can navigate challenges and seize opportunities more effectively. In this way, leadership development makes organisations more future-fit.
  • Cultural enhancement: Great leaders contribute to a positive culture. Leaders set the tone for an organisation, so modelling the right behaviours and attitudes is key to creating a healthy and productive work environment.
  • Bench strength: Having a bench of capable leaders, ready to step into critical roles, strengthens an organisation’s resilience. This is particularly important in times of crisis or change (which has become the norm these days!).

Creating an effective leadership development programme involves understanding the unique needs of your organisation, focusing on behavioural change, and measuring the results to ensure success. By investing in the development of leaders at all levels, organisations can drive cultural and performance improvements that lead to long-term success.

At Ivy House, we specialise in creating bespoke leadership development programmes that deliver real, measurable results. Our award-winning content, grounded in decades of research and experience, is tailored to meet the unique needs of your organisation. We believe in going deep to understand your culture and objectives, ensuring that our programmes drive genuine behavioural change and align with your business goals.

Ready to transform your leadership? Request a call to talk to one of our experts.

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