High-Impact Leadership Development: Enduring Lessons

Cambria is engaged regularly to develop a variety of training solutions for people in key leadership roles, ranging from front line supervisors to executives. Several of our new private and public sector programs have us reflecting on what makes the difference between programs that work and those that don’t.

Successful programs have resulted in real changes in individual behavior, performance results and career advancement. In some cases, they have also contributed to the development of solutions to concrete business problems or challenges, as well as desired changes in organizational culture.

Benjamin Bloom’s famous taxonomy gives us another way to define “programs that work” according to a hierarchy of learning objectives:

Remembering what has been taught.
Understanding, or making sense of the information.
Applying what has been learned in new situations.
Using what has been learned to create something new to achieve tangible results.

Most leadership programs achieve the first level, sometimes achieve the second level, struggle with the third level, and almost never reach the fourth level.

Although the target populations and content focus of our leadership development programs have varied, we know of six features common to the development and implementation process of the most effective programs, including:

Collaborative program design. All of our programs have been custom-designed and the most successful programs were developed collaboratively with our clients. Outside consultants can provide content expertise, understanding of best practices, and knowledge of training design and training delivery methods. High performers, subject matter experts and respected leaders inside the client organization can provide knowledge of the learning population, understanding of the key business objectives for which the program is being designed, and provide concrete case examples of best practice behavior in the organization. This collaborative combination of external and internal expertise and best practice experience leads to training that is more relevant and meaningful.
Collaborative training delivery. Particularly in the case of leadership development programs, having senior leaders, and even the CEO, play prominent roles delivering some of the training indicates the importance of this exercise, communicates clear messages about the strategy and leadership priorities of the organization, and personalizes the messages through the leaders’ stories and examples. It also gives these senior leaders exposure to the program participants that they normally don’t get in the course of other business. For participants as well, it signals that they will be held accountable for their learning and be expected to use it in dealing with the challenges in their roles and the business objectives of their organization. In other words, it is not an “academic” exercise!
Meaningful action learning. Instead of “make work” projects, the sole purpose of which is to demonstrate application of learning, we incorporate robust action learning projects that are designed to address significant organizational issues or business challenges. Participants of the action learning teams work together over the course of many months — following or during training interludes — and present their concrete recommendations to executive sponsors for implementation. This gives them the opportunity to put their learning into practice, essentially achieving the fourth level of Bloom’s taxonomy: creating new and innovative solutions that help their organizations compete more successfully. Learn more about the lasting value of action learning in this blog post from Cambria’s John Hendrickson.
Focus on individualized development. While action learning projects focus on collaborative efforts among team members, the particular development needs of individual participants are not left out. Tasks or small projects tailored to participants’ individual situations and development needs are incorporated into the most effective programs to supplement team-based learning. Developmental assignments, rotational assignments, shadowing and mentoring activities are just some of the options for reinforcing learning at multiple levels.
Multiple training events and activities over time. Many if not most leadership training events take place over the course of a few days or a week, after which participants are sent off to implement what they learned. By contrast, programs that work most effectively occur multiple times during the course of a year. These sessions, which can be in-person or virtual, provide opportunities for participants to apply their learning, analyze what worked and what didn’t, track progress in their learning, and assess the results they are achieving. Having multiple events reinforces what has already been learned and builds on the participants’ growing skills and momentum to ensure that the learning and its application are sustainable.
Reinforcement of learning application through coaching. Increasingly we have found that the use of coaches to support learning and its application to achieving development goals significantly increases the impact of leadership training. We employ coaching in action learning projects to facilitate team learning and engagement to help participants reflect on their process and learn how to maximize their effectiveness as individuals and team members. The coaches can be experienced external coaches for executive-level participants and teams, facilitator coaches to help junior-level teams process their learning and reflect on group dynamics, and internal managers and supervisors trained on the basics of coaching to extend this skill deeper into the organization. Learn more about maximizing your coaching investment in this blog post from Cambria’s Ellen Kumata.

Additional thoughts on designing highly effective leadership development programs:

Utilize the experience and wisdom already in the room as part of the training design.
Allow time for participants to be exposed to new thinking, reflect on and discuss its meaning in real terms, experiment with the new learning in a safe learning environment, and apply it to important business initiatives.
Build evaluation into the program up front, being clear about what is to be achieved, and assessing its value to participants and their executive sponsors.

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