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How to Build an Internal Leadership Development Program

Even for people with years of experience, mentoring and guidance, making the leap to an executive leadership position is a challenge hard to fully prepare for. There’s no way to understand what it’s like to sit in an executive chair until you get there.

Even when you do, being successful requires you to be in a constant state of learning. That makes it all the more surprising that so few companies invest in the kind of training and development programs that can ease the transition. In a survey conducted by the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, only 50% of executives indicated their business unit employed some sort of internal training program for senior managers.

This lack of training is translating to a lack of leadership. A survey conducted by Korn Ferry found that less than 20% of businesses think they have the leaders they need to deliver on strategic priorities. Because of this daunting reality, attitudes toward executive leadership training are starting to shift.

In a survey conducted by Executive Development Associates, the No. 2 priority for companies was to foster executive development to increase collaboration across the organization—not to raise the bottom line. While the need is evident, the path to understanding how to develop effective training programs isn’t always clear. Here’s one potential roadmap.

“Ultimately, well-conceived and successful development programs can be leveraged as retention and recruiting tools.”

Companies recognize that there is no quick fix for developing talent and leadership from the ground up. And as such, many look outward, turning to business schools or external vendors that offer executive development courses to get employees thinking in new ways and tap into skills not outlined on their resumes. But these programs come with a hefty price tag. In the United States alone, companies spend around $14 billion annually on leadership development programs. While these programs can foster self-awareness and the development of leadership skills, these gains are often not sustained.

To truly grow today’s employees into tomorrow’s leaders, organizations may be better off addressing this issue from within. Day & Zimmermann is a family-owned construction, engineering, staffing and defense firm that has developed such a program that turns the traditional leadership development program on its head.

A blueprint for leadership development
Since its inception, Day & Zimmermann’s Executive Development Program (EDP) has provided employees with unmatched exposure to high-level executives to leverage internal knowledge and proprietary know-how. The EDP includes a cross section of leaders from different functions and interests that come together to build self-awareness, learn about the context in which they are leading, and apply new skills to help fuel the next wave of growth.

With an internal program, EDP participants identify and solve real business problems for the company while simultaneously developing the people. An effective EDP should help foster a trusting, collaborative learning environment. A team approach will allow participants to get different perspectives, while also building a support network. Most importantly, an executive development program should have real effects on business processes or strategies. It’s the only way for participants to learn the real lessons and consequences that come with sitting in the executive chair. The program should be structured into three parts that allow for free exploration and active participation:

1. Pre-connection. Before implementing a formal program, select the right participants and set the ground rules. The goal should be not only to enhance the skills of current leaders, but to build connections across the company that will promote longer-term operational execution. With this in mind, businesses should identify a diverse group of existing employees from all over the organization. Create opportunities to meet in advance of the program and conduct exercises where participants are vulnerable in front of one another to quickly promote trust and facilitate an environment where participants can take risks, speak openly, and offer each other feedback.

2. Free-connection. After the program framework has been set and trust established, participants must identify and scope the problem they want to solve. Overly prescriptive expectations constrain the group and deprive them of vital lessons. And the job of leaders is “not solving the problem, it is framing it,” said Harold L. Yoh, III, Chairman and CEO of Day & Zimmermann.

Leaders must determine how to prioritize their time and scope the issue given limited time and resources. How they negotiate this task and organize is also critical to the group process. It is up to the participants to tap into the networks, access information and resources, and manage stakeholder expectations. Throughout this intensive period, they often discover that the way they have led in the past won’t work and new approaches must be practiced. Open, honest feedback is critical. Finally, their efforts need to culminate in a high stakes presentation where their efforts are evaluated, more feedback is offered and executives make decisions on how to act on their recommendations.

3. Re-connection. Once the program is complete and the strategies and ideas have been implemented within the company, the group should meet regularly to check on the progress of their work and to ensure that key objectives continue to be carried out throughout the organization. More importantly, this group should simply stay in regular contact with each other. Their shared purpose and collaboration will ultimately be key to the company’s future success. Also, they should reconvene at least annually to start the process again and try to address new company issues.

The right way to engineer leaders
Creating and facilitating an internal EDP is not only possible, but recommended for any large organization looking to steer away from traditional linear thinking to an approach that solves problems and develops leaders in a more holistic, sustained way. It must fit within the organization’s culture, while at the same time, giving space for program participants to challenge the culture. Executive leadership must remain involved, open, and committed. Ultimately, well-conceived and successful development programs can be leveraged as retention and recruiting tools.

Business today is more fluid than ever, and those left operating on a linear model are sinking. Creating an internal development program is step one in making sure your organization stays afloat.


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