6 Keys to Sustaining Effective Leadership Development Programs

You’ve just spent $1,000, $10,000, $100,000 – whatever amount – on a leadership development program to teach your managers and leaders to communicate better with others, to lead situationally, to give better feedback, or some other relevant topics that you believe will positively impact leadership, productivity, turnover and engagement at your organization. The happy face feedback is spectacular – a roaring success.

Now the real work begins. How do you keep this work alive in your culture? How do you avoid the one and done experience, the one where you look around months later and notice, gosh, nothing has changed?One of our clients posed that question years ago when we first wrote this popular blog. We decided to update it as the topic remains essential to sustainable success in any organization. Our clients are senior leaders. They are typically change agents, leading during times of transition or transformation. They never have bought into the “Check It Off the List” approach.

What we and they understand is that any leadership training or communication or interpersonal training is a change initiative. Treat it with the respect it is due.

The key, we believe, is to connect as many dots as possible. Here are six ideas for how to do that:

1. Step Back from “One Event” Mindset

One class does not a leader make. Identify the multiple lanes and means you already have for sharing information with the participants in the program – in person, online self paced, in small groups, within the organization, outside the organization. Such a growth mindset and practice acknowledges not only different learning modalities but the power of multiple exposures to the same or similar concepts in different context.

As guru of trends in learning, Josh Bersin (Bersin by Deloitte), recently shared it takes multiple modalities to move the needle. We have found that the adept use of virtual, in person, supported by learning experiences, coaching and mentoring across formal and informal platforms and reinforced in small groups or teams is powerful. 

2. Senior Leader Buy-in

This sounds incredibly logical and obvious…but so many times the executive team does not go through the program and while giving it lip service – “oh, yeah, sure, we want our leaders to become more engaged, and sure, we want to develop our leaders, but we don’t need to go through the program ourselves etc.”

  1. Put all leaders in the organization through at least some version of the program
  2. Expect the senior executives to own and role model the new behavior(s)

3. Early Stages of the Learning Initiative

  1. Engage participants before the topic is introduced – either through a self-assessment, an interview, an article, or other preparatory materials (micro-learning)
  2. Have a pre-training meeting between the participant and his/her manager to explore expectations for the experience – what I hope/ what you hope to get out of this program. This dialog encourages anticipation and clearly establishes expectations for impact.
  3. Build some sort of buzz about the upcoming workshop/offsite/training by finding a respected change agent among the participants who can start to talk about looking forward to the work. Whether it’s a senior leader sending a personalized note to participants about the program or a cohort of leaders sharing about their experience in a video prior to the event, both will fuel excitement and positive anticipation. You’re not only building awareness of the program but you are setting the stage for the experience to be received positively.

4. As the Learning Continues

  1. Have a respected senior leader kick off a session or parts of the session for both in person workshops or online micro-learning programs. Their presence highlights the importance and value of the learning experience.
  2. Be relevant: use real work situations as examples that the participants can relate to, assign activities that bring the core skill to life in a meaningful way
  3. Be immediately impactful: invite participants to work on a particular issue relevant to them
  4. Get personal: debrief their self assessment of the skill so they know where they stand now and what they need to do to work on it going forward
  5. Establish that this is an organizational commitment – include comments from a leader of the company as a role model of the behavior

5. Get Commitments Along the Way

At every point in the program, get a commitment regarding specific actions they will take. Formats we use that get traction include:

  1. Written commitments that are then summarized and sent to the entire group (for review at a later time)
  2. Working with a peer over a specific timeframe to share experiences and support around a particular topic
  3. A sealed personal commitment letter from the participant to their future selves (for a reminder 6 months following the session/experience)
  4. Ideas from the group as to how to sustain the work going forward as a group – some teams are very creative in how they plan to keep the work alive

The goal is always to create a safe environment for peers to support each other in these behavior changes within and beyond the classroom or retreat setting. That’s the magic and the challenge. The magic is that at the peer level they begin to hold each other accountable to new behaviors; it’s not just the responsibility of the manager – consider how potent that would be!

The challenge is incorporating the forums or processes so they are organically and easily embraced, not perceived as yet one more thing I have to do.

6. So, then…

Map out a few creative elements that will work in your particular culture to carry the learning experience forward. Test the waters. The more you can connect the dots between one initiative and another, the stronger and more seamlessly the new learning is applied.

Leadership and training literature is full of powerful results pointing to the impact of various methods, several of those we’ve tested and found successful are listed below.

  1. Performance Management: Build the behaviors and skills into formal and informal conversations through ongoing feedback, performance reviews, team goals, and organizational goals. Reward the behaviors you are trying to encourage.
  2. Offer ongoing micro-learning opportunities: appropriate for both pre-in person and post-in person workshops, micro-learning is a very effective means of engaging participants in a focused way, using 10 to 15-minute online segments to introduce or confirm concepts and practices. We have used one of our favorite micro-learning platforms, JUBI, with clients and they love it! For an overview of the JUBI platform, check out this short video or a client story on our website for how we incorporate it into our work 
  3. Create an online, shared resource center to engage participants by providing supplemental reading, opportunities for reflection and sharing and peer to peer learning – this could be in a structured micro-learning platform like JUBI or an intranet platform or an existing LMS.
  4. Identify ways to share physical reminders of the content through laminated worksheets, an interactive takeaway notebook, printed material or digital repository as resource rich, go-to material – include references to the materials in the ongoing conversations (see item “a.” above).
  5. Assign to Small Groups for relevant interaction: to build peer support, accountability and creativity assign small groups of 4 to 6 members who agree to meet regularly post-training to share how they are applying the information/learnings and the results they are seeing. With our clients, one of us facilitates the discussion initially (first few months) to establish the pattern, the habits of questions, and to coach them toward application of the content. After that, they take over the role of peer collaboration and coaching to support each other as a self-managing team.
  6. Send email tips: effective as one of many outbound initiatives, but not a solo method for reminding the participants of tips and content
  7. Offer Coaching one-on-one: especially for the senior leaders of the class/team/group, especially those who are struggling with the new content, or who are the anointed leaders of the change; this effectively keeps them focused on their behaviors, helps them role model for their direct reports, and builds the muscle for application on a daily basis

Need help with developing, delivering and/or sustaining leadership programs that work for your organization and culture? Reach out to us at Clearwater Consulting for a complimentary consultation about your specific needs and challenges by calling (404) 634-4332.