Building a Robust Leadership Development Program

By Jessica Johnson | March 4, 2018

In recent years, U.S. companies spent an estimated $12 billion on leadership development programs (O’Leonard, 2010) and services with respondents to a recent survey saying that only a quarter of their training programs were effective at measurably improving performance. At RBL we’ve done extensive research (Murphy, 2011) and have decades of collective experience working with the top leadership companies around the world. That experience has taught us what works and what doesn’t when creating an effective and impactful leadership development program.

In recent years, U.S. companies spent an estimated $12 billion on leadership development.

Jayne Ray has been working tirelessly as the head of Learning & Development in her mid-sized organization to get a leadership development program underway. Just this week Jayne received the go-ahead from the Grand Poobah (aka CEO) to build and deliver a robust program that will help her firm meet their strategic goals for years to come. She’s ready and excited to get the program designed and underway… but she’s not sure where to begin.

You may be like Jayne. Or Jayne’s life may seem like a dream you’d love to turn into reality. Regardless of your situation and surroundings, we want to offer six areas for consideration when constructing a new, or enhancing an old, leadership development program (LDP).

In recent years, U.S. companies spent an estimated $12 billion on leadership development programs (O’Leonard, 2010) and services with respondents to a recent survey saying that only a quarter of their training programs were effective at measurably improving performance. At RBL we’ve done extensive research (Murphy, 2011) and have decades of collective experience working with the top leadership companies around the world. That experience has taught us what works and what doesn’t when creating an effective and impactful LDP.

Before embarking on an effective LDP, it’s essential to know your organization’s strategy. Be aware—this is not step one. This is the bedrock to the six steps described below because without a clear understanding of your organization’s direction and desired stra-tegic outcomes, your LDP will fail to provide participants with the right knowledge, tools and experiences necessary to enable the strategy and deliver results. When an LDP is tied appropriately to the strategy, and is backed by a strong business case, the leadership investments are sustainable. If the purpose for these investments is unclear, the result is a well-intentioned program that gets cut at the next economic downturn.

In six steps below we’ll discuss who should be trained—based upon your strategic direction and desired outcomes—and how to decide on training content. Once that is complete we’ll discuss learning methods and who might be best to deliver the right content. Finally, every LDP should have a measurement strategy that defines success at a higher level than attendee satisfaction, and we’ll suggest a framework for pulling it all together.

STEP 1 – Audience: Who needs to be developed?

Our research into the top global companies for leaders teaches us that companies with the most successful leadership development programs invest more in leadership development at all levels in the organization. Yet your reality is that there is no pot of gold at the end of the Training & Development budget rainbow to train leaders at every level. Step one addresses where to spend your dollars and determine which audience will best help you deliver on strategic goals.

First consider the level of your potential audience. To simplify, we’ll bucket the audience into three groups: executives, managers and individual contributors.


The number of employees in your “top” leadership positions should be roughly equivalent to the square root of the total number of employees in your organization. If leadership development has never been formally undertaken in your organization, then starting an LDP at the top of the house can be beneficial. This will create a solid foundation of the expected leadership competencies on which the organization can build. Leaders will understand what is expected of them, their leadership behavioral patterns will look more motivated and consistent to the organization, and a lexicon for leadership discussions will be established.

When culture change is needed, an LDP for executives can also be beneficial. Getting the executives in your organization to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk of the cultural evolution is imperative. Without their visible support, desired cultural shifts become no more than words on paper.

When training executives in a workshop setting, there are some critical considerations. Facilitators—whether from within or without the organization—must have a high level of credibility and skill to be able to share best practices and improvise in response to specific needs. Content should be highly customized and business-specific. See more information in Figure 1.

We have found great success in solidifying learning and personal application to business situations when individual coaching is a part of the LDP. We’ll discuss more about coaching in Step 3 – Pedagogy.


The most frequent type of LDP we encounter is targeted toward high-potential managers within the organization (generally 5-10% of your total employee population). This audience is most popular because firms want to ensure that they have a strong cadre of leaders to sustain the business for years to come. Giving these managers the opportunity to grow and develop their personal leader brand in their formative managerial years is essential. This group can include managers of people as well as managers of processes.

Workshops for this audience should include content tailored to the organization for ease of application. Participants should regularly be encouraged to apply what they are learning to their day-to-day experiences, create an individual development plan, and some mechanism for accountability on their IDP should be included in the program design. We’ll discuss this further in Step 4.

Individual Contributor:

When technical and interpersonal skill development is the desired outcome to support the strategy, LDP dollars may be best spent at the individual contributor level.

In the early 2000s, a very large retailer was in rapid expansion mode. They needed skilled store managers to fulfill their strategic objectives. They thought appropriate hiring practices would meet those needs and didn’t create any technical or interpersonal leadership training for that position. Unfortunately the failure rate for new store managers was too high, and they were unable to deliver on their strategic goals. The retailer eventually created a formalized LDP for prospective store managers that mitigated the failure rate issues.

Once you’ve determined the level of the audience, next consider how you’ll put those participants through the program. Should they be together in an intact team? Separated by function? Or a participant sampling from all areas of the organization? Regardless of which you method you choose, there are advantages and areas you’ll need to anticipate in your design to make sure it’s a beneficial experience for all. (See Figure 2.)

The most common group construction we encounter is pulling a sampling across all business units in the organization. This lends to great networking and learning from areas of the business with which all participants may not be familiar. It is important to create content that will be applicable to client-facing roles as well as internal infrastructure roles. A skilled facilitator should be able to help all participants find the tailored content applicable to their position in the organization.

Figure 1: Considerations for different audience levels in the organization.

Executives Managers Individual Contributors
  • Higher-level of facilitators with greater ability to share best practices and improvise in response to specific needs
  • More customized and business-specific content
  • Fewer individual applications activities
  • Individual coaching for personal development
  • Fluent and engaging facilitators that can lead discussions, facilitate activities, and clarify questions
  • High quality content tailored to their organization for ease of application
  • Clear examples and regular application to their day-to-day work
  • Mechanisms to create accountability for development
  • Facilitators who are skilled in the content area of the training and in communicating how to develop skill in the interpersonal or technical training areas
  • Content directly related to their day-to-day work responsibilites
  • Emphasis on practice and application for skill mastery

Case Studies

  • Client 1: A global financial institution conducted global training sessions on ethics designed to drive cultural change. The top 3,000 leaders across all functions, businesses, and regions were engaged in Phase 1 of the training and were then charged to cascade the program through their organizations.
  • Client 2: One of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds found there was a gap in their leadership pipeline as they continued to project significant global growth. They chose to first focus on high-potential emerging leaders from a cross section of the organization with the intent that these leaders would be ready to guide the company for the next fifteen years.
  • Client 3: A global oil company identified the need to improve the strategic impact of the Human Resources Department. They brought together the top 300 senior HR leaders for a weeklong offsite workshop. Business leaders and customers delivered twenty percent of the content; and they effectively integrated Action Learning Projects to follow up and measure impact.

Figure 2: Group construction possibilities with advantages and areas to anticipate in the design phase.

Group Construction Advantages Design to Anticipate
Same Function
  • Best practices sharing/networking across function
  • Common ground on function-specific issues related to day-to-day work
  • Tendency to lose sight of business and external customer
Same Business Unit/Organization
  • Best practices/networking sharing across business unit/organization
  • Focus on business and external customer
  • Some participants struggle with how content applies to their day-to-day work
Intact Work Team
  • Higher likelihood and speed of implementation of learnings
  • Stengthens teams
  • Less best practice sharing
  • Tendency to focus more narrowly on team objectives

STEP 2 – Curriculum: What should be taught?

Selecting the “meat” of the curriculum (or the high-quality protein portion, for you vegetarians) should be done through a targeted needs analysis. Identifying the purpose for the LDP is foundational. Why are we proposing to teach this and not that? Let’s first ascertain what the program needs to address:

  1. Business Needs – communicate and get traction on strategy or major initiatives;
  2. Leadership Training – strengthening specific leadership competencies in the organization;
  3. OR Techinical Training – strengthen organization by improving technical skills (project management, quality processes, communication, etc.).

We recommend a focused selection on one of these areas instead of trying to address multiple needs in one LDP. Once determined, you should find primary data that lends to formulation of curriculum subjects. Figure 3 shows ideas for where to find such content. New data collection through surveys, assessments and interviews may need to be initiated.

Your needs analysis will help you prioritize subject areas that curriculum content should address. One client knew that leadership training was the overarching need after interviews with investors revealed that investors were concerned about the organization’s succession pipeline and its ability to have sustainable leadership that could execute on their strategy. The client looked into 360 assessment data and saw evidence that corroborated the investor interviews. The organization identified training areas around accountability, decision-making and change management and prioritized them higher than other subject area options.

After you’ve prioritized your subject areas, you must get agreement from LDP sponsors on specific objectives for the learning experience. As agreement is reached, the next step is to delve into the specifics of each component. We take time to identify the theory, tool, application and attitude participants need to understand or have. (See Figure 4).

For maximum impact, keep the design team focused on the business case and the business metrics the program’s success will be measured by.

Figure 3: Suggestions for identifying needs in three possible curriculum purpose areas.

Why it's being taught: Needs identification strategies:

Business needs

Communicate and get traction on strategy or major initiatives

  • Participant pre-tests
  • Organizational audit
  • Interviews/surveys with key internal stakeholders (executives/business leaders, participants, etc.)
  • Analysis of existing data related to initiative (business case
  • Interviews/surveys with key external stakeholders (customers, investors
  • Interviews/discussions with consultants, scholars, and industry connection

Leadership training

Strengthening specific leadership capabilities in the organization

  • 360 assessment data for target leadership populatio
  • Interviews/surveys with key internal stakeholders (executives/business leaders, HR participants, etc
  • Analysis of existing data (exit interview data, engagement scores, customer satisfaction, etc.
  • Interviews/surveys with key external stakeholders (customers, investors
  • Interviews/discussions with consultants, scholars, and industry connection
  • Review of literature or other external sources for recent research finding

Technical training

Strengthen organization by improving technical skills (project management, quality processes, communication, etc.)

  • Participant pre-assessmen
  • Interviews/surveys with key internal stakeholders (executives/business leaders, technical specialists, participants, etc
  • Analysis of existing data (customer satisfaction, error reporting, etc
  • Interviews/surveys with key external stakeholders (suppliers, customers)
  • Interviews/discussions with consultants, scholars, and industry connection
  • Review of literature or other external sources for recent research findings

Case Studies

  • Client 1: Interviews with executives, investors, regulators, and customers identified some gaps in the organization’s leaders’ understanding of the importance of ethical decision-making and the implications seemingly small decisions would have on the global business’s success.
  • Client 2: The company’s business strategy called for stronger performance in emerging markets and the acquisition of technical and leadership talents in new markets. Interviews with executives and financial analysts helped HR leaders understand the importance and speed required in the transition. Tools taught in the workshops helped participants work in new ways to achieve results.

Figure 4: Example: Identification of component specifics

Subject Area Accountability
Theory Developing accountability through goals, measures, consequences, and feedback
Tool(s) Accountability Model, More of Less Grid, Feedback Model
Application Am I effectively holding others accountable?
Attitude I know how to set standards and consequences and how to follow up.

STEP 3 – Pedagogy: How should it be taught?

You’ve picked the audience and the content for the curriculum; the next important step is to determine how you’ll deliver the subject matter to the participants. There are many options for learning experiences. Our thoughts on a few of them follow.

E-Learning Modules:

Environments for e-learning have improved steadily over the past few years. Originally they were best for highly specialized technical or high volume training where information needed to be delivered, but not necessarily interacted with. Platforms are now incorporating social media components, journaling space, mobile access, interactive learning tools, etc., to make for a highly robust learning solution.

Delivery of e-learning is flexible and is generally a lower-cost option than other learning modalities. It cannot replace highly interactive classroom learning, but depending on the content you’d like to deliver, it can be a viable option.

Blended Learning (E-learning with facilitated group sessions):

We’ve developed hybrid or blended learning options with some of our clients and found great success. After watching videos and reading materials online, participants come together on a facilitated call, webinar, or at a central location where they can learn from each other by sharing best practices and networking.

This method can be effective when content needs to be rolled out on a short timeline to a large audience.

Stand-Alone Training:

Learning from other participant experiences, networking, and an ability to focus on business needs are hallmarks of this type of learning solution. Training times and locations are less flexible than other methods’; however, the cost is moderate compared to online and blended approaches.

Integrated Learning Experiences:

The Top Companies for Leaders study has taught us that this type of learning experience is most valuable and effective in leadership development. It can include classroom instruction, one-on-one coaching, action learning projects, and other custom experiential learning.

In our leadership work, we help organizations create what we call a Leadership Academy where leadership development doesn’t happen at a moment in time, but rather is extended across many months to even a year of a balanced and integrated process. The focus is not on activities, but rather on results. The experience can be highly tailored to the individual participant where they are assessed before and after the program, coached throughout, and taught curriculum consistent with the aims and strategy of the organization.

When significant change and growth is expected of the participant, an integrated learning experience is the most beneficial learning solution. It is also the least cost effective. You will need to balance finances with learning and development objectives.

Case Studies

  • Client 1: The client had a very distributed partner workforce that they quickly wanted to train on talent management practices and methodologies. Online learning modules were created, along with readings and journaling that participants would complete on a weekly basis. At the end of each week they would join a facilitated call to discuss learnings, best practices, and to have their questions answered by a subject matter expert.
  • Client 2: The pedagogical approach for this client relied heavily on custom cases drawn from real-life examples in the organization. These cases highlighted the link between instances of ethical lapses and the business implications of these actions—for the global organization. Group discussions built understanding and alignment on how the organization’s values can be implemented in real-life situations.
  • Client 3: Beginning with a focus on strat-egy and culture, and over the course of a year, this client blended high impact skillsoriented modules with one-on-one coaching, cross-functional project work, and experiential learning that were unique to each individual. Assessments and manager reviews ensured accountability for results-oriented learning.

STEP 4 – Faculty: Who will teach?

You will likely spend days, weeks or months developing your curriculum content and the learning methods that will be used to teach it. Yet if you don’t secure the best faculty for the subject matter and pedagogy, your LDP will not deliver the results you expect. How do you select faculty? You could look in-house to HR professionals, c-level and senior leaders; venture outside your firm to consultants and/or academics from graduate schools of business; tap into the experience and knowledge of customers and investors; or some combination of these options. What will be most effective for your LDP depends on factors we discussed earlier—audience, curriculum, and pedagogy.

Once your curriculum is set, we suggest you ask some probing questions:

  1. Do we have anyone in-house that has expertise in the content areas?
  2. If we do – are they well respected by the audience? Do they have credibility?
  3. Are they able to utilize the learning methods we’ve discussed, or will we need to adapt to their style and teaching capability?
  4. Are there certain content areas where discussions will be limited or stifled in some fashion because we have someone internal leading the discussion?
  5. If we don’t have anyone in-house – which consultants and/or academics have the expertise we desire in the outlined content areas?
  6. Would bringing a customer or investor into the room provide valuable insight we can’t find elsewhere?
  7. Are they willing to align their content to the LDP outcomes desired by our organization?

Leader-led training has been shown to be a powerful and effective tool in the development of the future leaders in the organization. We’ve recently witnessed this as a new CEO co-taught an ongoing leadership development seminar for all 300 of his top executives. He was asking for an evolution of their leadership culture and was able to show, by example, how he expected his leaders to lead. He was very conversational, used pertinent examples, and looked a bit like a professor working to elicit the best answers out of his graduate students. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and participants took action.

We’ve also seen this go very badly. In many programs senior leaders are asked to come in to LDPs to either kick off or close the session and hand out graduation certificates. While they may be given speaking notes beforehand, or briefed on the content covered, when speaking off the cuff and in Q&A sessions we’ve seen those leaders quickly unravel all the progress a skilled facilitator has made with the participants earlier in the program. The senior leader leaves after dropping the bomb that HR and/or outside faculty then need to clean up.

Senior leader involvement in an LDP exhibits a strong commitment to the program and the success of the participants. This can be achieved through program design, action learning project sponsorship, participation on panels and keynotes, actual facilitation in a classroom setting, etc. If you decide to utilize senior leaders in your LDP, here are a few suggestions for making that an effective decision: Make sure the leader is held in high regard within the organization—do your participants want to learn from her/him?

  • Take time to coach the leader (usually one to two sessions are needed) on how to facilitate and teach groups, share their personal examples and listen to attendees.
  • Make explicit what content needs to be covered and the time allotment.
  • The learning environment (lecture, case study, formal, informal, etc.) must fit the leader’s own style and personality. If it doesn’t, change something.

Benefits abound for the leaders you utilize as faculty. They not only get the satisfaction of helping to build stronger leadership within their organization, but they are able to interact with and observe the potential of participants. Such observations are regularly used in succession planning discussions and promotion decisions.

Often organizations will utilize different faculty for distinctive portions of the contentassuring the faculty members have credibility and subject matter expertise. We’ve seen customers and/or investors used as faculty in impactful ways. They are invited to share a personal case study about the benefit your organization provides to them, the service level expected, or even failures in value delivery or relationship building. Participants can interact with and learn from these important stakeholders in a way that leaves a lasting impression of how daily actions affect their most important customers and investors.

When utilizing external vendors, you need to ensure that they are aligned to the objectives and results of your LDP. Off-the-shelf programs are difficult to align to predetermined objectives. Ensuring that external vendors have the ability to tailor their content to your program becomes a significant hurdle in delivering on your expected results.

For manager and individual contributor-level training, train-the-trainer programs are the most effective way to develop quality facilitators for learning modules. If you decide to go down that road it’s important for potential trainers to have a basic facilitation skills before they embark on a training program. After that foundation is laid, they should observe the course at least once before co-teaching it with a trained facilitator. Newly trained facilitators should be observed by an experienced facilitator and should receive formal feedback.

Case Studies

  • Client 1: Executive-level facilitators directly challenged participants to ensure that they understood the CEO’s commitment and the requirement to make real and lasting changes. Coaches for break-out groups kept the small groups focused and engaged.
  • Client 2: To address both the local needs of the company strategy and to provide world-class education learning was facilitated by a mix of senior external academics, internal senior executives, and RBL certified executive coaches. Participants also engaged throughout the process in teaching and mentoring each other.
  • Client 3: The Chief HR Officer was present during every week-long LDP session to help translate business needs into HR priorities. Active participation from business unit executives and senior level external consultants in their areas of subject matter expertise.

STEP 5 – Measures: Are we getting the right results?

Though we have laid out these steps sequentially, they rarely happen in that order and probably shouldn’t. Your measurement strategy, in particular, should be considered from the moment you create the business case, and measures should be collected throughout the LDP process. We encourage you to get past “smile sheets,” as we call them, where participants rate the popularity of the facilitator, the availability of healthy snacks, and the temperature of the room. Instead focus on the impact the training is having on the individual, organization, customer and investor. (See Figure 5 for examples.)

Along with those measures, we can work to continually improve the program. The best way we’ve found to do this is through post-program review meetings or After Action Reviews following each major program element. We ask three questions in those reviews:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn't?
  3. What will we do differently next time?

These reviews should incorporate feedback (either formal or informal) from participants, facilitators, sponsors, HR team members, and any other stakeholders who may have opinions to share. One organization we’ve worked with through ten extensive LDPs holds reviews after each significant portion of the program. The classroom sessions and action learning projects have been refined and tightened up over the past five years to stay true to the strategic direction of the organization and meet the fluid needs of the participants and other stakeholders. Within the course of the program, a large acquisition occurred. The design and delivery team assessed the impacts—including changes in strategy and personnel—and updated portions of the program to reflect new business realities.

Case Studies

  • Success of their LDP was measuredby regulator confidence, stock price,and employee engagement scores.
  • At the individual level, 360s were completed at the beginning and end of the program demonstrating an overall “significant improvement” as rated by their peers. At the organizational level, projects were completed with approval from the senior management team and tracked for ROI. Senior leaders applauded the positive impact and improvement on the original leadership pipeline dilemma.

Figure 5 Examples of potential measures in four impact categories.

Measure Examples
  • 360 follow-up assessment
  • Completion rate of IDP
  • Change in readiness status (ready now, ready in 1-2 years)
  • Employee engagement scores vs. non-participants
  • ROI on action learning projects
  • Increase backup ratio for X position by 35%
  • Increase retention of target employee population to X%
  • Qualitative feedback from sponsors/stakeholders/participants
  • Increase on-time delivery by X%
  • Customer satisfaction up by X%
  • Share of wallet for target customers up by X%
  • Qualitative feedback from customers
  • Increase on-time delivery by X%
  • P/E ratio vs. competitors
  • Increase operating margin by X%
  • Increase sales by X%
  • Decrease defect rate by X%
  • Higher rank in Top Companies for Leaders survey

STEP 6 – Process: How do we put it all together?

Organizations generally have a process they intend to follow in developing training programs. We’ve created our own method to provide needed milestones and direction when working with various organizations. We’ve shared our high-level process map in Figure 6.

Consider your own process and discuss whether there are needed changes to the usual flow given this LDP design and delivery, in particular. It’s imperative to include milestones with affixed dates to keep the program design moving forward on schedule.

Figure 6: Our process map for design and delivery

  1. Project team identified, oriented, and launched.
  2. RBL and client finalize answers to the discussion questions we've outlined in this paper.
  3. Client reviews standard modules and other elements (assessments, coaches guides, etc.) and identified needed changes or development.
  4. RBL makes changes to and incorporates any cusomizations.
  5. Client reviews and approves changes, including sponsor sign-off.
  6. All faculty is identified and training conducted.
  7. Pre-work distributed and followup conducted.
  8. Materials and event logistics completed.
  9. Program launch and implementation of measurement strategy initieated.


Leadership development is recognized as a vital ingredient for organization success. We hope the six steps we’ve discussed above will be valuable in helping you create and deliver a robust leadership development program to the right audience, covering the most salient curriculum for your business. We encourage you to explore various pedagogical approaches, and seek to find a good fit with your chosen faculty. And always remember—if you didn’t measure it, it didn’t happen. So explore the best ways to capture the results of your LDP so that it can happen over and over again as you continue to develop leaders for the future. Good luck!


Karen O’ Leonard, The Corporate Learning Factbook® 2010: Benchmarks, Trends and Analysis of the U.S. Training Market, Bersin and Associates (2010).

Rochard McGill Murphy, How Do Great Companies Groom Talent? Fortune 164.7 (2011)

Jessica Johnson is a Principal with The RBL Group. She has worked with organizations around the world as an executive coach, teacher, and facilitator and has published widely on the topics of leadership, HR, and talent management. 

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