Leadership Development

Author: Angela Mulvie

Consultant author: Nigel Paine


  • Leadership development is probably the largest and most significant investment in learning and development that organizations will make. Building a suitable pool of competent, knowledgeable and skilled senior personnel who are able to act consistently and demonstrate behaviors that mirror the organizational values is a core element for business growth and commercial success. See What is Leadership Development? and Why Organizations Invest in Developing Leadership Skills.
  • Before embarking on a leadership development program the organization should consider what the desired outcomes of the program are, and what problem the organization is trying to solve See A Strategy for Leadership Development.
  • Several factors need to be considered before the design and delivery stage of a leadership development program, including what skills need to be developed, what support will be given to the leadership program participants, and the nature of the investment. See Planning a Leadership Development Program.
  • There are many ways of selecting participants for leadership development programs. Some organizations use tools such as performance reviews and 360-degree appraisal, while others draw on recommendations by line managers. See Selecting Participants and Assessing Development Needs.
  • Leadership programs should draw on a wide range of activities to engage learners, including on and off job development, structured content, self-study, face-to-face and online resources, work-based projects, secondments, coaching and mentoring. See Study and Delivery Modes.
  • The organization will need to make a decision on whether or not its leadership development program will lead to qualifications. See Accrediting Programs.
  • The organization will need a model for measuring the impact of the leadership development program. See Evaluating the Outcomes of Leadership Development Programs.


This section of the XpertHR best practice manual discusses how to deliver effective leadership development. It demonstrates why this type of development is important and considers some of the key issues to be taken into account when planning, designing, delivering and evaluating a leadership program.

Leadership development should be a key element of all organizations' learning and development strategy. In a challenging business environment that is increasingly uncertain and complex, the quality of leadership and leadership decision-making can differentiate the successful enterprise from the struggling one. It is also a core indicator of wider workforce engagement and good customer relations.

An investment in leaders at all levels will ensure that staff are motivated to contribute to organizational growth and business development. Businesses will generally be less successful than they could be, and run the risk of outright failure, without effective leaders who:

  • Are knowledgeable;
  • Demonstrate consistent behavior;
  • Are committed to their role;
  • Relate well to their people regardless of circumstances; and
  • Have a strong forward vision.

The key is to develop consistent and excellent leadership in the organization. This is not just a process of developing leaders; it is also about ensuring that these leaders then drive business success.

What is Leadership Development?

Leadership development describes a range of activities and programs, provided both on and off the job, that organizations make available to those members of staff who are charged with leading others. It is probably the largest and most significant investment in learning and development that an organization will make.

Through leadership development activities leaders enhance their knowledge and skills and develop behaviors that will enable them to help the organization work towards and achieve its goals.

Leadership development programs can take many forms:

  • They may be formal or informal,
  • Relatively high or low budget; and
  • May cover a variety of issues.

Therefore, key decisions will be required on what the organization is trying to achieve before actions on content and delivery are taken. It is also critical that measurement of the success of this type of investment is undertaken.

The Differences Between What Leaders and Managers Do

At a senior level these staff drive the organization forward to success, while lower down the hierarchy they are at the heart of delivering quality products and consistent customer service.

Most organizations make a distinction between managerial and leadership potential among the group of selected key personnel being developed for promotion to senior positions. While a distinction between what a manager does and what may be required of a leader will differ from one organization to another, in general terms some common thinking and practice exists with regard to how executive development is planned for and carried out. The detail of how such development might be provided will depend on this differentiation between what a manager does and what a leader does.

In 1990, Professor John Kotter from Harvard Business School made an interesting distinction between management and leadership, and the skills and behaviors associated with these two types of activity. He suggested that management is about coping with complexity and the application of agreed policies and procedures to ensure a degree of order and consistency in factors such as quality and profitability. Leadership, on the other hand, is about dealing with change, at a time when, for example, global economic conditions are challenging, new information technologies need to be adopted, unstable political conditions exist and deregulation of markets is occurring. These broader considerations of how to do business in a changing environment are what leaders need to take into account to be successful.

More recently, the British academic Keith Grint made a slightly different point when he differentiated between management and leadership. He saw both management and leadership as legitimate forms of authority but with leadership being more strategic and concerned with new problems, and management requiring a more short-term focus on existing and known problems. In other words, managers work in the organization and leaders work on the organization.

In a more managerial role, individuals need to create and sustain an organizational structure and a hierarchy of jobs to deliver services, and to do this they need to plan for and source any necessary resources. Planning and budgeting, organizing and staffing, controlling, problem-solving and evaluating are all key responsibilities that need to be undertaken.

In a leadership role, on the other hand, individuals need to be able to deal with change. This is not just about seeing the way ahead by creating a vision for the future, but also about taking people with them and convincing them of the power of that future and their key role in securing it. They need to be able to plan at a strategic level to ensure the delivery of that vision, and deal with constraining factors along the way. An important part of this role will be the alignment of staff in terms of skills, roles and commitment in order to ensure success.

Organizations therefore need to ensure that the people being promoted into leadership roles have both the requisite skill set and the vision and focus to formulate strategic plans as well as the ability to execute the delivery of them.

Both roles are equally important, and an appropriate level of investment will need to be made to develop a suitable talent bank for both current and future circumstances.

Why Organizations Invest in Developing Leadership Skills

Both business and government have practical concerns about the increasing complexity of leadership roles, coupled with the lack of capability at both executive and general management levels to deliver on business strategies. As a result, organizations are investing heavily in leadership development. Estimates by the Corporate Research Forum indicate that it is now a $50 billion industry worldwide. There is a need to have a talent pool from which to grow and develop those who can take forward organizational growth and a leadership pipeline that reaches deep into the organization to identify and develop leadership potential. Such structures focus on individuals and/or groups across the whole organization. This complements increased broader investment in career planning and talent development activities.

Research by Development Dimensions International and sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that the organizations with the highest quality leaders were much more likely to outperform competitors on metrics such as financial performance, quality of goods and services, customer satisfaction and employee engagement. The London Business School academic Alex Edmans noted that companies that invest in their staff outperform their peers and the stock market when tracked over time. This last issue is of particular importance at a time of economic uncertainty and cost cutting when organizations need to engage their best people at all levels and retain them if at all possible. Edmans showed that an investment in staff development is a sensible business decision.

There are many reasons why organizations may wish to invest in developing talented people to take on leadership positions. These include the need to:

  • Ensure that the right people with the right skills are in place to lead the organization for both the current situation and the future;
  • Remain competitive in a marketplace that is constantly changing;
  • Keep up to date with and provide insights on the application of new technologies, systems and procedures;
  • Create the most appropriate organizational culture to take the business forward;
  • Ensure that leaders demonstrate behaviors that mirror organizational values;
  • Support the creation of new organizations or a fresh, more innovative approach to leading the business;
  • Have consistency and cohesion in the way services are delivered;
  • Encourage collaboration across different management functions, sectors or industries;
  • Enhance employee engagement and deliver best employment practices;
  • Reduce costs and issues arising from using only external recruitment to bring in talented senior people;
  • Ensure that the organization has enough senior people with both "soft" and "hard" skills; and
  • Encourage self-development and a problem-solving ethos throughout the organization.

Leadership development programs should always complement other talent management activities such as recruitment, retention and reward. Therefore, it is important that they do not happen in isolation but rather are part of a wider range of best practice HR management and development activities and all are in alignment with the greater needs of the business.

A Strategy for Leadership Development

Before embarking on a leadership development program, an organization should consider what the desired outcomes of the program are, and what problem it is trying to solve.

The Investors in People framework is an internationally recognized tool that provides guidance on a range of people management and development activities. These include the development and application of a suitable strategy on leadership, whereby key skills are identified and understood by the senior team, and demonstrated by those managing the business. Many organizations now develop and apply management competency frameworks to identify the type of leadership and management skills required. These can be linked to a range of HR activities including recruitment, training, performance management, reward and retention. An important requirement of the Investors in People framework is the linking of any leadership development activities to overall business strategy.

The European Foundation Quality Excellence Model (EFQM) is another useful business model that can help with the planning of leadership development. The underlying principles of this model are eight fundamental concepts of excellence, which are seen as essential to achieving and sustaining excellence. Organizations working with the EFQM review their practices in a number of areas, such as leadership, strategy and people that are seen as enabling organizational success. Two key elements of this model are:

  • Leading with vision, inspiration and integrity; and
  • Managing with agility.

Both elements highlight the need for the organization to have confidence in the senior team managing the business.

Similarly, the Baldrige Excellency Framework may be useful in self-assessing and establishing an integrated performance management system. The framework focuses on seven areas of organizational management and performance, including leadership, strategic planning, operational focus and results. The criteria for evaluating an organization's performance in these various areas is based on several core values, such as:

  • Visionary leadership;
  • Customer-focused excellence;
  • Managing for innovation;
  • Societal responsibility;
  • Ethics and transparency; and
  • Delivering value and results.

In defining a strategy for leadership development consideration should be given to whether a fully planned, cohesive program of development is required or something more ad hoc.

It is always helpful for the organization to consider what other organizations are doing in the leadership development field. Reaching out to networks, reading case studies and exploring research literature can yield useful insights. No one will have the complete answer but organizations should gather ideas and explore what works for others.

Planning a Leadership Development Program

To ensure that all relevant factors are taken into account in designing and delivering a successful leadership development program, several aspects should be considered at the planning stage. These include:

  • The context of the program;
  • The identification of the leadership skills that need to be developed;
  • How the senior leadership team will support the individuals going through the program; and
  • The resources available to provide the development program.

Establishing the Context of Leadership Development

It is important that an organization is clear on what its organizational strategy is, and how a leadership development program will help to deliver this. At the planning stage of any leadership development program, the desired outcomes of the program should be listed. Where an employer has an established learning and development strategy, or a broader talent strategy, the requirement for an investment in leadership development may have already been identified as a way of achieving particular objectives of the organization.

To obtain a full and accurate picture of what leadership development is required, organizations should investigate how staff experience their leaders. Looking directly at what it means to be led and how staff feel about the quality of leadership can be a salutary experience. Therefore, when introducing a leadership development program, or amending an existing one, it is always helpful to involve a range of staff in the design process by setting up user groups who will comment on what needs to be included, as well as the proposed delivery modes. These focus groups can be supplemented by input from line managers, target groups and senior management. In this way, the team responsible for the development can begin to build an accurate and consistent picture of what is required. Trying to second guess what is needed and what will work is rarely successful. This type of involvement is crucial if the organization wants to promote engagement in, and widespread support for, any leadership development activities adopted.

Defining Leadership Skills, Capabilities and Behaviors That Need to Be Developed

The organization will need to identify the key skills, capabilities and behaviors required by the group of individuals undertaking the program.

Organizations can identify their skills requirements by analyzing job roles and requirements, through such means as observation, discussion with existing successful jobholders and line managers, and a review of any relevant documentation such as existing job descriptions and role profiles.

Some organizations may also wish to anticipate the future skills needs of the organization, and/or place emphasis on developing skills that will equip leaders to manage disruption and change.

When someone is promoted, for example, a change in perspective may be required. If their previous focus was mostly technical, after promotion a broader perspective may be needed. Support at this moment of transition is cost effective and essential because as people change roles they will generally require different skills and capabilities and they will certainly have to behave differently.

Those tasked with the design element of the program will need to be clear about the range of skills required, how these will be classified, how they are currently measured through such things as performance reviews and how they might need to change over time. Once such key skills have been identified as necessary within an organization, a leadership development program can be devised around them.

Common capabilities required for leaders might include the following:

  • Vision: leaders provide direction and have a clear picture of the future.
  • Inspiration: leaders inspire people to work towards the vision and often act as role models and lead by example.
  • Reaction to change: most leadership relates to instigating or reacting to change; good leaders are therefore persistent and do not give up at the first obstacle.
  • Learning agility: leaders need to be able to think critically and proactively and learn from their experiences.

Research by the Institute of Leadership and Management suggests that for senior leaders strategic, commercial and negotiating skills are critical, while core skills of communication and people management are very important. In a Conference Board/McKinsey & Company report, more than 180,000 leaders from 41 countries were interviewed about what they considered the key skills they needed to do their job successfully to be. The report concluded that there are certain capabilities that need to be included in any leadership development program. They are:

  • Be supportive;
  • Operate with a strong results orientation;
  • Seek different perspectives; and
  • Solve problems effectively.

Working in teams has increased over recent years, with self-managed teams, cross-functional teams and virtual teams commonplace. Constant change and a need for improved competitiveness have encouraged organizations to try to realize the full potential of their people. This in turn has helped them to rediscover the power of teams. Building or developing a team will be affected by the quality of the person leading that team, and his or her ability to be visionary, inspire confidence in team members and lead by example.

Senior Team Involvement

It is important that the significance of the leadership development program and the impact it will make is acknowledged and championed by the senior team, so that everyone takes it seriously and has high expectations of the outcomes. Therefore, the chief executive or a member of the executive team should sponsor the leadership development program to ensure that it has support at the highest level of the organization and that this is recognized by participants.

It can also be extremely helpful for members of the executive team to provide advice, guidance and mentorship for participants in the program. Group coaching or mentoring sessions by the senior members of the organization will demonstrate the importance of the program, build alliances, enhance communication between layers of leadership and help to ensure consistent behaviors and collective responsibility.

Identification and Allocation of Resources

One of the key issues at the planning stage will be the decisions required on the level of investment to be made, as establishing and delivering a leadership development program can be costly. Possible considerations include:

  • The cost of conducting training off site;
  • Having a dedicated on-site facility (although this could be shared with other types of training);
  • Facilitator costs including travel and logistical expenses;
  • Materials preparation and printing costs;
  • Lost time from work spent in training;
  • Potential for additional pay for individuals taking on additional responsibilities on an interim basis;
  • External program fees, such as for short courses from specialist suppliers, including business schools;
  • Accrediting programs in-house, which might include licensing, assessment and quality assurance costs paid to awarding bodies;
  • The opportunity to secure any grant funding or other financial support;
  • Following up with participants line managers to assess impact; and
  • Follow-up programs or assignments to reinforce the learning.

Where external courses leading to relevant qualifications are used, the organization may require the participant to pay at least some of the costs, while support could be given to such things as study time-off with pay, or assistance with the purchase of books and other resources. With many programs now offered online, companies may find that supporting this type of study mode may be cost effective. Where a number of participants are going through a leadership development program at the same time, savings can be made around, for example, delivery methods (see Study and Delivery Modes), facilities used and the application of action learning sets in-between taught inputs.

Employers may allocate a budget for leadership development from within an overall learning and development budget or provide special funding for a one-off program.

Designing and Delivering a Leadership Development Program

Once initial planning has been completed, the organization can begin to design its leadership development program. During this phase, consideration will need to be given to:

  • The content of the leadership development program;
  • Selecting participants for the program;
  • The choice of delivery mode(s) and the learning approach;
  • Timelines; and
  • Whether the program will be accredited.

The Content of Leadership Development Programs

Once a decision has been made to invest in leadership development, the organization will need to begin planning the content. This responsibility may rest in-house with whoever is commissioning and organizing the program, or may be contracted out to a consultant or external organization.

The advantages of designing the content in-house are that:

  • The organization has a clear picture of its requirements and the outcomes that it wants to achieve;
  • The organization knows and understands the existing management culture and the personnel involved; and
  • The organization's history of leadership development is known and understood when positioning new content.

The advantages of using a consultant or external organization to design the content are that:

  • An external consultant may have a broader knowledge and experience of designing and delivering relevant programs;
  • A more objective perspective can be gained and more challenging content developed; and
  • Participants may perceive training designed by an expert external individual or organization to be more credible than that devised in-house, and therefore be more receptive of the training that they receive.

Regardless of the method chosen, the organization has to be prepared to supply the core content for the leadership program. This is not something that should be contracted out.

The content will need to be focused around the learning required and the leadership knowledge, skills and behaviors identified as relevant to the individuals receiving the development (see Defining Leadership Skills, Capabilities and Behaviors That Need to Be Developed). Many leadership development programs include generic content covering such things as the different functional areas of managing a business and the key influences on strategic decision-making for forward planning. At the same time, the regulatory and legislative frameworks of the particular business environment will have to be covered.

As an example, in designing a leadership development program for the banking and financial services sector, content will cover the skills required to manage in that environment as well as detailed information on how the sector has evolved, and how the current economic and trading conditions and associated regulation will affect leadership activities.

It is particularly important that the content of the leadership development program is interesting, engaging, relevant and up-to-date. In addition to a practical element, there may be value in asking participants to cover some theoretical background on leadership and the different models that exist.

Selecting Participants and Assessing Development Needs

A decision will need to be made on who is eligible for any leadership development program being offered. However, it will be very important to have a transparent process against which participants are chosen. Tools that might be used to select participants include assessment centers using a selection of activities such as exercises, role-plays and psychometric tests, outcomes from performance reviews, and assessments on suitability by line managers.

It will be important to link any decisions on who should be eligible for leadership development to succession planning programs, which in turn should be linked to an overall strategy on learning and development.

It is common to put the entire leadership team at an organization through a program, rather than a select few. This comprehensive method can be used to bring a whole new approach to leadership at the organization.

The organization will then need to determine the development needs of the chosen staff, by defining the skills and behaviors required by the organization and matching these against jobholder capabilities. Tools to identify individual capability include performance appraisal discussions, peer reviews (also known as 360-degree appraisals), outcomes from psychometric tests and discussions with line managers.

The line manager should discuss the specific development needs of the individual targeted for the program and help the individual to build an action plan that will be monitored and supported both throughout and after the program. The evaluation expert Robert Brinkerhoff's research found that the impact of a leadership development program is significantly increased when an individual has an action plan for how the learning will be applied following the training that is supported by the line manager.

Study and Delivery Modes

A key consideration for the organization will be which particular methods of leadership development to use. The main types of learning delivery are:

  • Executive coaching and mentoring, provided individually or on a team basis;
  • Action learning sets;
  • Experiential learning, including work-based projects or stretch assignments;
  • Technology-based programs; and
  • University courses.

Executive Coaching and Mentoring. Executive coaching and mentoring are becoming two of the most popular methods of enhancing the performance of managers. Coaching is a one-to-one or group interaction designed to support accountability for an individual's performance and/or development. It aims to raise the individual's awareness of different perspectives and ways of doing things, and to enhance the individual's ability to take responsibility for his or her own performance and development. Mentoring is defined as a more informal and long-term, advisory relationship between two people at work, usually where one has experience and insights of value to the other. Whereas mentoring often involves passing on knowledge and experience, coaching is generally provided on the basis that the coach's role is not to pass on direct experience, knowledge or skills to the individuals they are coaching, but to enable their learning.

The key advantages of coaching are the opportunities for personalized, focused support whereby leaders are encouraged to think through and find their own solutions to the commercial and personal issues facing them in their work role. Executive coaching is usually provided on a one-to-one basis, but increasingly organizations are considering the value of team coaching and how this might be delivered. An organization can choose to coach a senior manager to become an effective team leader, as well as providing coaching to the manager's team to help each individual focus on being part of a successful team. Senior staff inside an organization can be trained to deliver coaching, or an organization can work with an external facilitator who is trained in this type of work. However, this latter approach can be expensive.

Some organizations will make use of mentoring, either provided in-house via more experienced managers, or externally through professional networks. In a leadership development context, mentoring is used during and after the learning has taken place to provide ongoing advice, guidance and support to put the learning into practice.

The confidentiality and sharing of outcomes of coaching and mentoring sessions with the organization as budget holder/purchaser will also need to be considered, as the coach or mentor has a responsibility to the organization as well as to the individual with whom they are working. Where an external provider is being used, a formal contract should be drawn up between the organization and the provider with this information included in it. There needs to be clarity around what information will be shared beyond the coaching room and what remains confidential to the coach and the individual being coached.

Action learning. Where several managers are undertaking a leadership program together, the organization may wish to use action learning sets. Action learning sets or groups are often described as an accelerated learning tool whereby participants share their thinking and work to solve each other's problems together during the learning process. Used within a formalized leadership program, action learning can become a powerful tool to assist participants to feel involved and supported by peers and colleagues. In an action learning set, the focus should be a complex problem that one member wishes to discuss. The group does not attempt to answer the problem but to explore the situation by asking questions. The action emerges at the end of the discussion when the problem owner commits to certain actions to resolve the problem.

Experiential learning and work-based projects. One way of helping to embed learning once participants are back in the workplace is to design into the program a project-based activity or stretch assignment that enables participants to practice the skills being covered and see where and how they might be applied to real situations. In a program that contains some type of research or investigation by the participant, this may include a practical element such as the collection of data through a survey to test a hypothesis or determine the suitability of a changed process.

Technology-based provision. In the international marketplace, the use of technology-based learning is growing, as organizations try to develop talent on a global basis and ensure consistency of delivery across several marketplaces. Online models of learning have become increasingly popular as they provide flexible and cost-effective solutions. Tools such as video conferencing and Skype are being used extensively, in particular in the coaching field.

Online content can be used to help reinforce messages from a more traditional taught input or sometimes largely to replace that delivery method. Participants might use such things as e-books, TED talks or YouTube videos.

University courses. Opportunities exist for employers to work with educational providers such as universities, business schools and professional management bodies that accredit a range of leadership development programs.

Many universities now provide a range of specialist leadership masters degrees. At this level of learning, it is common practice for participants to undertake a work-based project of some kind that has relevance to the job role. Where this is required there will need to be liaison between the employer and the participant to ensure that a relevant topic and opportunity is available, and that on-job support is provided.

Blended learning. Where several learning approaches are used together this is known as "blended learning", which is becoming the norm as it is a cost-effective, resource-efficient delivery method. An integrated approach can:

  • Give greater ownership and control of study time to the participant;
  • Enhance responsibility for engagement and therefore the outcomes achieved;
  • Provide flexibility that can be helpful to a jobholder who has limited time for study and attendance at formal classes; and
  • Develop skills in a process that will encourage continuing communication and knowledge-sharing among participants after the program has finished.

Potential disadvantages are:

  • The degree of responsibility participants will need to take for their own learning;
  • Falling behind schedule because of the flexibility allowed; and
  • The isolation of working independently with little reference to the tutor/facilitator apart from via tutorials.


The organization will need to consider how quickly it wants any leadership training to be completed, as well as what speed of learning would suit the target group. An Institute of Leadership and Management-accredited program set at, for example, level 7 (equivalent to a postgraduate degree), which could be delivered on an in-house basis, might take about one year to complete. A shorter, non-accredited series of workshops might be delivered over a period of a few months.

Accrediting Programs

The organization will need to consider whether its leadership development programs will lead to qualifications - an official record of successful completion of a course of study or training, such as a credential, certification or degree. The acquisition of a recognized qualification as part of any program of development may be seen as a bonus for participants as it may enhance their employability with potential future employers.

If the organization chooses to accredit its program, the options available include:

  • Seeking approval from a relevant accrediting body such as the Institute of Leadership and Management for the organization to become an approved center that meets relevant criteria and therefore is able to train and award within agreed guidelines;
  • Working with an approved center and using its accredited courses;
  • Creating an in-house "academy" or university with a series of staged qualifications, e.g., certificate, diploma and postgraduate that meet the requirements of a recognized accrediting organization; and
  • Having programs endorsed by a relevant awarding body; these endorsements do not in themselves provide a qualification but rather give a certificate recognizing the professional practice of the individual.

Where the organization chooses to create an in-house academy or university, it will need to obtain accreditation for its own programs by working with a relevant awarding body to get it accredited by a recognized accrediting organization; this is a lengthy and costly process.

A further possibility would be for the organization to map its own program content to qualifications already recognized by an awarding body. However, to do this the organization would need to be an approved center. This would involve meeting the criteria as set out by the awarding body, which is likely to include that all learning outcomes match the requirements of the assessment process established for certification. This is a complex route to take, but the organization may choose to do it because it gives it ownership of its learning activities for senior managers.

Evaluating the Outcomes of Leadership Development Programs

There is a strong business case for measuring the impact delivered by a leadership development program. There are a number of different approaches an organization could take.

An integrated approach is likely to be most successful. This involves the organization defining the impact required before the start of any learning and development intervention. Where organizations pursue such an approach, the risk of not meeting objectives at the input stages (needs analysis and the design of programs and their implementation) is lessened.

Whatever method of evaluation an organization chooses, it is important that the evaluation should not focus on examining the variety of learning interventions that have been used, but on the outcomes, such as what has changed and why. This is particularly true in the area of "soft skills", the so-called development of behaviors that can be applied to the management and leadership of employees and their performance. If teams are asked what they have noticed that is different in the way they work with their manager, a useful conversation about impact emerges.

One of the most popular approaches to evaluating training is Robert Brinkerhoff's "Success Case Method". This method involves conducting detailed interviews with the most and least successful participants to determine the conditions for success and failure, as well as detailed discussions with teams who report to the leaders who have been trained, and the organization's senior managers. Interviewees can be chosen through methods such as a questionnaire, feedback from their line manager, and observation of their behavior and performance after the development program. The information gathered during the interviews is collated to identify what factors helped the attendee to apply their learning in the organization and had maximum impact. These success stories can be shared within the organization, and be used to improve the outcomes of future development programs. This method of evaluation can be conducted relatively quickly and at a low cost.

An alternative approach is Kirkpatrick's four-level model of training evaluation, which although now more than 50 years old remains a popular method of evaluating learning and development, including leadership development. This method of evaluation places more emphasis on gathering proof that the learning has been effective, rather than measuring how the learning has been applied by the program attendee. The four levels are:

  • Reaction: assessing what the trainees thought of the particular program (level 1).
  • Learning: measuring the extent to which attendees acquired the facts, skills and attitudes that were specified as training objectives (level 2).
  • Behavior: measuring aspects of job performance that are related to the training objectives (level 3).
  • Results: relating the results of the training program to organizational objectives and other criteria of effectiveness (level 4).

The reaction of attendees to the training program is usually measured by use of a questionnaire. This would examine factors such as how the attendee rated the delivery mode(s), the training content, and the quality of those delivering the training, as well as what they liked most and least about the training.

To measure the learning acquired through the development, the organization will have had to identify what it expected attendees to learn before the program commenced. Testing or interviewing individuals before and after the program will provide insight into how their knowledge, skills and attitudes have changed as a result of attending the program.

Assessing the behavior change of attendees will require observation of how they are acting differently from before the development took place. This is likely to be a longer-term project, if and when work situations arise where the learning can be put into practice.

Evaluation of the results will depend on what objectives were set at the planning stage of the program. Examples include increased sales and better customer service, or higher job satisfaction and retention levels among employees.

The determination of who has responsibility for such measurement is important and should lie within the initial contracting process between the different stakeholders involved in the learning and development activities. Arguably several stakeholders have a role to play in this evaluation activity. These might include the budget holder, the deliverer of the development, the individual receiving the development opportunity, and the line manager who will follow through on the learning and its application back in the workplace. If responsibilities for evaluation are clearly delineated and agreed during the contracting phase, then the opportunity exists for clear agreement on what is expected as an outcome and how this can be measured.

A Return on Investment in Leadership Development

If an organization wishes to put a monetary value on its leadership development program, a return on investment (ROI) measurement should be used. In its simplest form, ROI is the return, or incremental gain, from an action, divided by the cost of that action, usually expressed as a percentage. It evaluates the efficiency of a particular investment. To carry out such measurement, both the gains achieved and the costs incurred must be easily identifiable, and the resulting action must be attributable to the effort undertaken. Normally the calculation for the return on investment on development is calculated as gross or net benefit less costs.

A number of aspects of a leadership development event can be costed relatively easily, such as trainer/consultant fees, materials and resources, participants' time away from the workplace, and the cost of hiring replacements. However, such an approach generally provides no information about the size of the return, nor the risks involved in the investment. Business investments usually involve financial consequences extending over a number of years. The usefulness of simple return on investment as a metric may also be challenged when the cost figures allocated include indirect costs that may not be caused directly by the action or the investment.

An alternative to the economic/financial return on investment measure is an analysis of development activities in terms of what has been achieved regarding changes in behavior and employee on-the-job performance. In this case, distinctions between the intrinsic value of the investment in development opportunities - i.e., basic skill enhancement and added value where measurable improvements can occur - will be considered.

Return on Expectation

As an alternative to more traditional cost/benefit outcome evaluation methods, a report by the CIPD encourages a focus to be placed on assessing the extent to which anticipated overall benefits have been realized. This requires clear articulation and definition of the expectations for the program. It also requires articulation of whether the original expectations have changed, as a result of the development. The focus is on assessment of the perceived contribution of the learning rather than on hard metrics of financial outcomes achieved.

Follow-Up Learning

A leadership development program should not end when taught elements have been completed. Effort should be put into supporting the attendee to ensure that learning is translated into behavior change. This requires support and advice from the individual's own manager and might involve some post-program project or stretch assignment, networking events or follow-up workshops to provide a continuing forum for participants to share experience, grow their skills and change their behaviors.

Additional Resources

Workforce Planning: Federal

How to Develop a Succession Plan

Succession Planning Checklist

Career Planning Policy