Creating leadership development programs for today’s business needs

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Thought leader in business simulations, strategy execution and president of Simulation studios where he advises top companies worldwide.

In 2021, global organizations gave more than $61 billion in leadership development programs. That number is expected to rise to nearly $180 billion over the next 10 years. Yet many leaders still question the value of most leadership development programs.

Managers often ask questions like, “How does this apply?” and “How does this translate into value?” These are valid questions, but I think executives should stop asking about ROI when it comes to leadership development. It’s just common sense that leadership development programs built around today’s business needs are valuable.

Based on my experience helping companies adopt strategically focused leadership development programs, aligning content with the strategic needs of the organization is becoming more important than ever. Even with the best of intentions and adequate resources, executing strategically focused leadership development programs can be challenging. The main reason is that most leadership development programs shy away from being business-oriented and challenging. Instead, they focus on being positive, supportive, behavior-oriented, and easy to complete. In other words, most programs lean towards the “feel good” side of the equation.

This is not an article about how to make your workout participants feel good. I’m here to explain how to create a leadership development program for today’s business needs that is challenging, immediately applicable, and almost entirely hands-on.

Five components of a leadership development program

1. Create a strategic leadership development boot camp

Today’s programs must be hard-hitting, extremely real, practical, strategically oriented and immediately applicable. The program should be short, intensive and 100% full of energy, immersing participants in the life of the CEO. This is a no-holds-barred boot camp, not a drawn-out, feel-good training program.

2. Short bursts of content that matter right away

The trick is to stay focused by avoiding deep dives into a topic. Many leadership development programs try to make participants experts on a number of topics. This rarely works. The aim should be to provide participants with immediately actionable tools in skills such as applied business acumen; strategy development and implementation; effective leadership behaviour; cross-functional collaboration; systems, design and innovative thinking; and business flexibility.

You don’t create masters – you create multidisciplinary strategic warriors who can use specific tools at the right level at the right time. Think of it this way: is it really necessary to send managers to a business acumen course where they learn about financial statements for three days? Of course not! Most just need to understand the income statement. If they need more, they reach out to finance when things get complicated.

3. Challenging, practical and directly applicable

Remember that you are trying to accelerate strategy execution in an effort to create strategic growth. Today’s leadership development program is the perfect weapon to create an army of strategic thinkers who have the ability to move the business forward. The only way to do this is to put them in a program well above their skill level where they can practice immediately applicable skills hands-on. They must fail to learn! So let them fail in a business simulation, where it’s safe and controlled. Give them an extremely challenging situation to learn and then apply their lessons to the organization.

4. No junior or inexperienced training supervisors

You must ensure that your leadership development programs are led by experienced leaders. How can you expect your leaders to learn from a lifelong trainer who barely had a P&L? You need a real-world leader who can talk about real-world applications, usage, and failures. Training should not be led by an MBA (at best) who does not understand the real strategic challenges, growth, failures and successes.

5. Participants held accountable

You are going to spend a lot of money on these individuals. Make sure you hold them accountable. Today’s leadership development programs require everyone to be 100% engaged. They are there to learn, and they should compete with others to learn the most. Remind participants that “we are here to fail fast and learn fast. We will do this together as a team.” Participants must fail to learn, and they must feel safe and supported when they fail. This creates the perfect environment to hold participants accountable for what they learn, what they need to learn more about, and how they plan to use their newly acquired skills. If they feel safe to fail, they will feel energized when held accountable.

Creating a leadership development program for today’s business needs is one of the best, yet most exploited, opportunities to accelerate strategy execution initiatives. Remember that leadership development programs don’t have to be long; the ideal program is a challenging, immediately applicable and almost entirely hands-on boot camp that accelerates business forward.


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