Moving learning from the classroom to an executive’s workplace

By Rosanne Baumhard
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/01/2003

Designing an effective leadership development program is both a daunting task as well as an expensive undertaking.

How do you ensure your organization will receive a return-on-investment? If you are like most HR professionals, you will review the benchmarking research, but it is one thing to read the research, quite another thing to pull it all together and make it work in your organization.

Research has shown a number of different development methods work effectively — from action learning assignments, to 360-degree feedback, to coaching, to development centres. But the reality is that you could design a leadership program with all the “bells and whistles” and still find leaders are not receiving the development they need to move into senior positions.

So how do you take the researched methods, put them into practice in your organization — with its unique needs and culture — and ensure they actually build leaders?

Successful leadership programs have three common threads:


— ensuring participants in leadership programs can transfer knowledge and apply it on-the-job;

Followup and support

— holding leaders accountable to their development plans and supporting them as they grow; and

Target individual needs

— ensuring the program takes into account each participant’s unique background and learning needs.


No matter what elements the program includes, the key issue is to ensure acquired knowledge is transferred back to the work environment and used every day. Several key actions improve this transference:

Ensure development is linked to business objectives.

Good developmental plans provide experiences in the work environment that are directly tied to strategic objectives. If an aspiring leader would like to manage conflict more effectively, a goal on her plan should not read “learn to manage conflict more effectively.” To ensure learning this skill becomes part of a broader experience on a strategic business assignment, the developmental goal could read “develop two new service delivery methods to be used by regional sales teams.” The action steps could then include brainstorming sessions where conflict is encouraged as a method of reaching more innovative solutions.

Use leaders to coach leaders.

Behaviour change requires risk-taking. Aspiring leaders need the support of supervisors and the reassurance that it’s okay to make mistakes.

They should spend regular time with their bosses or internal coaches discussing the action steps on their plans. With respect to the brainstorm session outlined above, the participant could watch her boss conduct a similar session, then discuss strategies for her own session. The boss could then watch her and provide feedback.

“Senior leaders are now achieving success by coaching people across a broader spectrum, emphasizing personal growth and one’s career development needs,” said Linda Shales, vice-president of human resources for Altana Pharma Inc. “Coaching is now more about developing leaders than improving day-to-day tasks and current job performance.”

Ensure senior leaders role model effective skills.

People learn from watching others. Senior executives must role-model effective behaviours for up-and-coming leaders. For example, demonstrating integrity at work and providing value-based leadership to teams is integral for successful leaders. Having senior leaders demonstrate these values allows up-and-coming leaders to learn this important skill.


As with everything, to make sure something is done well, you must followup. No one would consider setting the department’s budget at the beginning of the year and not looking at it again until the end of the year. This same consideration must also be given to leadership development.

“Developing leaders at all levels requires a discipline within the organization. While assessments, including 360-degree surveys, are invaluable to the process, formal procedures and monitoring programs need to be in place,” said Bernie Mitchell, vice-president of human resources for insurance provider The Co-operators.

Two approaches are most useful here:

Hold them accountable.

After setting plans, a common mistake is not following through to ensure participants are “working their plan.” It is best for these followups to be done by someone outside of the business unit — either a leadership coach or an internal HR consultant. If it is left to the participant’s boss, it can be easy for business pressures to interfere.

Include a re-measurement component.

If 360-degree surveys are used as part of the self-insight phase of the leadership program, it’s crucial to go back and review those insights — often one or two years later. This encourages leaders to have a timeline for improving skills.

Recognize the individual

If participants don’t see the relevance of the program in their personal context, they will not be engaged and will not develop.

Offer different development opportunities.

It is a waste of resources and training time if the program assumes all participants need the same skill development. For example, listening skill development is a common component of leadership curricula. However, some participants will already have well-developed interpersonal skills and will feel this is a waste of time.

Other participants, however, might require listening skills training, combined with on-the-job practice, to feel comfortable with soft skills such as demonstrating empathy while listening.

Ensure participants learn about themselves, not just about leadership models.

Programs that are highly rated typically teach participants something new about themselves. Participants often cite “a better understanding of themselves” as a key take-away. In order for each participant to gain some self-insight, provide time for reflection.

Provide outside support.

Many successful leadership programs use objective outside coaches to not only provide feedback on issues such as 360-degree data review, but also to provide support to leaders as they transfer new skills to the job. While internal coaches are effective at coaching on process and hard skills, external coaches (consultants or psychological coaches) can dig deeper on soft skills (such as emotional issues or lack of confidence) that prevent leaders from taking risks or from becoming the best leaders they can be.

In the end, the most important key to successful leadership development programs is consistency — ensuring the basic approach can be sustained year-over-year. The costs of running leadership development programs can be high, but you will have more success at measuring and demonstrating return-on-investment by following systematic processes that take transference, followup and individual needs into account.

When economic times get tough, or your organization undergoes major change initiatives, your leadership program will remain intact because it will be seen as an integral part of strategic and succession plans.

Rosanne Baumhard is a partner at Jackson Leadership Systems, a Newmarket, Ont.-based consulting group that partners with organizations on the design and delivery of leadership development programs and provides developmental coaching. She can be reached at (905) 898-6100 or

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