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Creating Leadership Programs for Leaders at Every Level

leaders at every level logoOne-size-fits-all doesn’t work when it comes to leadership development. It’s more effective to craft tailored leadership program for leaders at every level with different emphasis areas for senior executives, mid-level managers, and frontline contributors. 

 Why You Need Separate Leadership Programs for Leaders at Every Level 

Organizational hierarchy precludes vulnerability and open sharing. 

People at the top want to maintain the illusion that they know it all and are already strong leaders. People in mid-level jobs want to prove themselves, so they hold back when senior executives are present. People in frontline contributor roles typically present as “deer in the headlights” and wonder why they’ve been included in something that’s above their pay grade. 

Without openness and willingness to acknowledge gaps, leadership development is little more than a conceptual exercise. Change is unlikely to occur when people hold back from diving fully into the training. 

There is one exception. Immersion experiences that last longer than a single workshop provide opportunities for people from different levels to learn from each other while also learning leadership. Shorter-term programs get bogged down by the differences, but longer-term programs can allow for discoveries and comparisons that benefit all. 

Here’s an example. We offer a public series each quarter, The Leadership Challenge® LIVE. In this immersion experience, up to 18 participants spend 18 hours together in virtual workshops. These are highly interactive workshops with breakout discussions about personal experiences in leadership (and life). 

On day one, inevitably, there are concerns from two groups: The senior-most people in the group worry that those with less experience will force remedial content. Those with the least experience express a lack of confidence, even intimidation, when comparing themselves to more experienced participants. 

By the third session, thinking shifts. In 1:1 coaching sessions, participants from both groups reveal how much value they’re getting from the perspectives of others. They start asking questions they’d feel uncomfortable asking people in their own organizations. They get “reality checks” they might not get from the people in their usual circles. 

By the time they graduate, the cohorts ask for reunions and exchange contact information to stay connected. Years later, despite the disparity in job levels, they remain resources to each other. 

Inside an organization, though, it’s best to segment leadership development. Creating like-minded groups who share similar struggles facilitates stronger application of what’s learned. When there’s no “fear of exposure,” people can openly admit gaps and will be more likely to shared their struggles. 

We find that it’s best to group people according to job level, rather than function. That way, you get cross-pollination of ideas and increased business acumen as “icing on the cake” with the leadership development. You also get more openness and less posturing. 

These three levels, at a minimum, will set up the optimum sharing and openness: 

  1. Senior Executives. This group includes people in the C-Suite and those oversee entire business units. Managers of managers are sometimes included here, but you may wish to split that level (Senior Manager/Director) into its own group.

    Leadership development for the senior team focuses heavily on the behaviors of leaders and the 360-degree feedback that’s been collected so each individual can understand how their leadership is seen by others. A compiled group report also informs the senior team about their collective strengths and gaps as leaders. 
  1. Mid-Level Managers. This group includes frontline managers who oversee the work of frontline contributors.

    Leadership development here may incorporate some light-touch instruction on supervisory skills where needed. For example, as the group learns about the importance of developing other leaders, it often surfaces that the group doesn’t really know how to delegate effectively. To support the leadership behavior of developing other people, we may incorporate some basic training on delegating for development. 
  1. Frontline Contributors. Surprised to see this group in an article about leadership development? You must be new to this CONNECT2Lead Blog series about leadership at every level! Backtrack to read more about the MANY benefits of providing leadership development to frontline contributors. This group includes everyone who does not have managerial or supervisory responsibilities.

    Leadership development for frontline contributors introduces The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® and the 30 associated behaviors. This evidence-based framework for leadership proves that building leaders at every level strengthens organizations and significantly boosts employee engagement and retention.

    With this group, there’s a need to focus first on self-leadership and on seeing themselves as leaders even though they’re not managers. 

When the groups are separated, we strongly recommend starting with the senior team. That way, they can reinforce what others learn and can model what’s included in the training. They will become ambassadors and advocates because their own understanding and enthusiasm is cultivated during their training experience. 

Elements of Leadership Programs to Meet a Variety of Needs 

Figure weighing two optionsThere are many in-house leadership development programs that effectively build leadership skills. 

There are also many in-house leadership development programs that fail to build leadership skills. 

The difference is usually found in the focus and content. Those are driven by the desired outcomes. When an organization wants to build functional expertise, the focus will be on technical skills. The result will be superior, advanced functional expertise, not strong leadership. 

This happens with most chamber-, city- and community-based leadership development programs. It also happens with a lot of association- and industry-led programs. Community programs aim to equip emerging executives with community awareness, connections, and service experiences. Industry and association programs typically focus on building functional expertise and advocacy for the industry. There may, of course, be some true leadership development content, but it’s in the context of community or industry vs. individual focus. 

The in-house programs that are most successful in building leaders are the ones the heavily emphasize learning and practicing leadership skills and behaviors. To supplement what’s available internally, these programs often bring in experts with proven programs like The Leadership Challenge®. 

We recommend a scaffolding approach for designing programs for leaders at every level. This is an incremental approach that follows a learn-do-coach-practice-master series of steps. Creating internal experiences for practicing leadership skills ensures that business acumen and functional expertise will also grow. But the centerpiece of learning is the leadership development training and coaching. 

We also favor inclusion of a capstone project so participants can reflect on and demonstrate all that they’ve learned in their program. The projects should focus on real business needs. They should stretch participants just outside their typical comfort zone. They should be designed to embed leadership behaviors in the needs assessment and solution development.

 As we build or enhance leadership development programs for our clients, we start by understanding the desired outcomes. We also strive for alignment rather than “reinventing the wheel.” By leveraging what’s already being done, we accelerate adoption and dignify progress that’s been made. 

To learn more about the work People First Productivity Solutions does to help organizations create affordable, practical leadership programs for leaders at every level, visit our website page and FAQs about our offerings.

 The Building Blocks for Creating High-Impact Programs 

Leadership development is, unavoidably, a deeply personal experience. When people attempt to shortcut the introspective elements, they get less from the opportunity. The ones who are willing to open up, consider input from others, and make real change are the ones who get transformational outcomes. 

That’s why, In the program design, it’s important to include activities, reflections, coaching, and assessments that promote introspection. One-way content delivery or bolt-on technical training will suppress the learning about ones’ self that makes leadership development a unique and powerful experience. 

Ideally, your leadership development programs should include: 

Solid instructional design that delivers on desired outcomes: Start at the end. Before designing a program or getting enamored with a course, determine what you hope to achieve by offering leadership development. What will change as a result of the program? Who will be impacted and how? 

These outcomes should be informed by input from other stakeholders. The executive team and the people who are most eager to access leadership development may have strong ideas about the outcomes they’re looking for, so those should be taken into consideration. If you’re working with a consultant/program designer, it may be best for them (as an outsider) to conduct a survey and/or interviews. People tend to share more openly with outsiders. 

Assessment(s) that promote self-awareness: For some, especially frontline contributors, self-assessment on leadership behaviors is the ideal starting point. For others, a 360-degree assessment provides deeper-level insights and new perspectives. 

With a long-term immersion experience, personality assessments provide a springboard for developing self-awareness about style preferences. 

Depending on desired outcomes, some also choose assessments for developing awareness of: 

  • emotional intelligence strengths and gaps
  • conflict and negotiation style
  • critical thinking and strategic agility
  • communication style and habits
  • team cohesiveness 

To get a better handle on the types of assessment tools you may wish to consider, view this on-demand webinar on the BrightTALK People First Potential Channel. 

Cohorts that stimulate discussion and diversity of thought: When selecting participants for any cohort, mix it up – not necessarily by job level (see above), but by personality style and functional area. Public workshops (mixed groups from various organizations and industries) provide an opportunity for cross-pollination from a wide range of perspectives. 

What you don’t want are cohorts that inadvertently suppress idea exchange and openness. Avoid putting 10 people who typically hold back and defer to other with 5 people who typically dominate the conversation and may talk over others. Better to segment or distribute the folks with these extremes. 

Content that focuses on what it means to be a leader and how to lead effectively: Don’t make it up. Don’t start from scratch. Avoid cobbling together a mish-mash of content that is unrelated and may be confusing. 

Instead, choose an evidence-based foundation, like The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, as the model or cornerstone for what you offer. Program architecture and cohesiveness will flow from any solid foundation. 

1:1 Coaching that provides a safe zone for working out personal challenges to leading effectively: Left alone, people may get overwhelmed or stalled in their leadership development. Leadership development training presents a lot to consider, evaluate, and act on. Having a coach to help with the processing and planning is extremely helpful. Coaches help participants get clarity that boosts confidence and accelerates change. 

Long-term reinforcement for continued learning and discovery: One-and-done workshops seldom have long-term impact. They may be engaging and inspiring in the moment. But that initial reaction wanes quickly. Business-as-usual sets in and diminishes the impact. 

We offer a 30-week reinforcement course to supplement our training in The Leadership Challenge and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders. Your Leadership Choices is dripped out in snack-size lessons that reinforce the 30 behaviors that are proven to make leaders more effective. The videos, bonus resources, and challenge assignments serve as reminders, accountability, and extended learning. 

Accountability and metrics: Leadership development classes and experiences feel good. They’re energizing. But that’s not enough. Good vibes and intentions don’t move the needle. Whatever the desired outcomes, it’s important to create accountabilities for change.

 We include Accountability Partnerships, Development Plans, and Metrics in the programs we design or provide consulting services for designing. That ensures real change and growth. One of the simplest and best metrics, incidentally, comes from repeating the assessment of leadership behaviors that was used early in the program. When participants create goals related to specific behaviors, the repeated assessment, 12-18 months later, provides proof of progress or reminders of what to work on next.

 To learn more about the consulting and program design services we offer, please visit this website page or give us a call.