Investment in leadership development can result in a meaningful, positive impact on the bottom line. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) reports that organizations realize a return on their investment (ROI) in leadership development through increasing leaders’ ability to influence teams and impact the business — attracting and retaining top talent, leading through change, and driving results.

Furthermore, leadership is critical during periods of uncertainty, like the business landscape we’ve worked in during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over half of the executives surveyed for Deloitte’s 2021 “Global Human Capital Trends” report suggested that skillful leadership is vital to navigate the unknown futures ahead.

To reap the benefits of adept leaders, organizations spend a tremendous amount of money on leadership development. Estimates from Training Industry indicate that in 2019, it was a $3.5 billion global industry. Unfortunately, an enormous investment does not guarantee success. According to McKinsey & Company, only 11% of more than 500 executives surveyed strongly agreed that their leadership development efforts achieved desired outcomes.

Learning organizations can consider the following elements in their leadership development strategy to better position themselves for success:

1. Ensure Executive Support

No executive support, at the very least, means there is no budget for leadership development. However, successful strategies go well beyond securing a budget in engaging organizational leaders in this process.

Involve top leadership early. You could formalize this involvement through key stakeholder interviews or by building a steering committee to advise on and approve key milestones. Alternatively, you could garner buy-in through less structured practices. Set up informal meetings with leaders who champion learning and development (L&D); listen to their experiences, and ask for input and feedback along the way.

Whether a formal or informal approach will work better for your company culture, executive buy-in is critical to gain broad participation and engagement. If leaders don’t care, why should employees?

2. Understand Organizational Needs

Before designing a solution, it’s vital to understand the problem. Just because the executive team deems leadership development mission-critical does not mean that there is a solid grasp of the underlying issue — or that leadership development will solve it.

According to Harvard Business Review, this misalignment is one of the many reasons leadership development efforts fail. In one example, the crux of the issue was that managers did not understand what practices and behaviors were expected of them. It’s best to tackle these systemic issues before implementing a learning program.

To embark on that discovery, start with data. Interview key stakeholders to understand what leaders need, or review the rich data sources from company surveys and exit interviews to identify themes about culture dynamics.

While articulating the problem, also look for what’s working to later amplify those processes and behaviors. To that end, consider employing appreciative inquiry. Ask questions like:

    • What have been the most effective displays of leadership that you’ve witnessed in your time at the company?
    • What were the conditions that made those experience possible?
    • If those experiences were to become the norm, how would leaders at all levels have to change?

Once there is alignment on the underlying issue and what’s working to combat it, you can begin developing a more holistic strategy.

3. Start with Leadership Competencies

Between the insights gained from the needs assessment and L&D’s knowledge of best leadership practices, it may seem that there’s a laundry list of skills to organize into a curriculum for existing and emerging leaders.

Don’t get caught in this trap. Instead, use the desired behaviors as an input to define a holistic view of leadership at your organization. Filter that definition through company values and existing performance competency models to develop a framework on which to build the program.

The goal is to create a structure for how leaders at all levels develop leadership capabilities over the course of the employee life cycle. You can then attach learning goals to this framework to provide an overview of what success will look like. Tailor this step to your organization, with a focus on capabilities and desired behaviors. You can find example approaches from SHRM, Deloitte or CCL.

4. Craft a Change Management Plan

A best-in-class leadership development initiative can fail without paying due diligence to supporting the organization through change. At its core, change management is about helping employees adapt to a new way of working — in this case, within a new culture of leadership development.

Elements of a change management plan include (but are not limited to):

    • A communication plan and materials to align expectations around participation and leadership behaviors.
    • An internal marketing plan to broaden engagement and excite future learners.
    • Risk mitigation strategies to prepare for potential barriers to success.
    • A resistance management plan to address pushback from vocal employees.

In addition to these materials, remember to identify change champions who can use their social and professional capital at the organization to influence others in embracing and participating in leadership development.

5. Design an Evaluation Plan

Proving impact will be impossible without evaluation. Thus, successful strategies include the creation of an evaluation plan in advance of launching the initiative. Tie metrics to the learning goals, focusing on measurable outcomes and key behavior changes. Create surveys and assessments, and identify performance outcomes. The most successful strategies also ensure alignment with executives on how you will measure success.

While it’s important to understand the employee experience and skills gained, work with leadership to agree on key metrics around business impact to report on the ever-elusive ROI. Go above and beyond the Kirkpatrick Model, and investigate climates that maximize the ROI: What environments amplify the desired outcomes of the program?

Once this foundation is in place, prepare a communication plan to share evaluation dashboards and impact reports with the executive team upon launch and onward.

6. Infuse Culture and Processes With Leadership Competencies

Formal training content is often forgotten within weeks (or less) unless learners make an effort to relearn or apply the material. On top of the limitations of the human brain, a leader may return from training to an organization that discounts his or her learning through its current culture or process.

Thus, it is crucial to bolster learning through ongoing conversation, continued leadership engagement, and a systemic integration of leadership capabilities in the culture and core processes. Consider the following places where you can measure and embed leadership competencies to support program success:

Through a more holistic approach, your learning organization will find itself better poised to succeed and less likely to fall victim to the common missteps in realizing the benefits of its investment in leadership development.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.