6 Tips to Improve Your Leadership Development Strategy

What it means to be a leader is evolving. Here’s how to make sure your development plan keeps up.
Brian Nordli
Senior Staff Reporter
October 5, 2021
Updated: October 6, 2021
Brian Nordli
Senior Staff Reporter
October 5, 2021
Updated: October 6, 2021

Before DeShawn Barrett blazed his trail as an HR leader, he had a manager who believed in him.

While Barrett expressed interest in learning about the inner workings of company strategy, he credits his manager for giving him the opportunity to develop the strategic thinking skills he needed to become a leader. They gave him the autonomy to lead his own initiatives, coached him on what to improve and advocated for him when the time came for promotions. Today, Barrett works at SpotHero, a parking reservation software company, as its director of talent development.

But not everyone can count on their manager to sponsor them, which is why it’s important to have a leadership development plan — an organizational strategy to develop talent. It includes training to upskill employees, succession plans, a transparent career ladder, and diversity, equity and inclusion commitments.

What Is a Leadership Development Plan?

A leadership development plan is an organizational strategy to develop talent. It includes training to upskill employees, succession plans, a transparent career ladder, and diversity, equity and inclusion commitments.

It’s a key component to retaining employees and ensuring the company has a full leadership pipeline. After all, hiring a leader outside the company can be an arduous process that takes 90 days or longer, according to leadership recruitment firm GatedTalent.

While almost every HR leader recognizes the importance of leadership development, it can be incredibly difficult to get right. Despite companies spending $3.5 billion on leadership development, just 11 percent of HR leaders believe they have a strong pipeline of talent, according to leadership consulting firm DDI’s most recent Global Leadership Forecast.

So what’s clogging the pipeline? 

Much of it has to do with the way leadership has evolved in the past year. Twenty years ago, companies would’ve said that a leader needs to be confident, autocratic and task-oriented, according to t-three, a leadership training firm. That may have worked when life and work were separate. But after a global pandemic, a transition to remote work, economic uncertainty and social unrest — not to mention generational changes in the workplace — employees require more from their bosses.

Leaders today need to be flexible, collaborative and empathetic. They no longer sit alone on an island; they’re on Zoom showing off their cats and introducing their team to their partners, Barrett said.

How do you develop those leaders? Here’s what you need to know.

 

Create a Plan That Reflects Your Organization’s Values

Before you start creating a leadership development plan, it’s important to understand what being a leader in your company looks like.

In general, effective leaders today need to be prepared to deal with constant change — or its common acronym VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, said Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a leadership assessment and consulting firm. Leaders have to be able to solve complex problems quickly, mentor employees and have the skills to relate to employees across multiple generations.

Those core skills form the foundation of most leadership training plans today, Wolfe said.

But how leaders act and respond to those situations will be different for every company. That’s why every leadership development plan should start with your company values, Barrett said.

Leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization. If you’re going to develop the next generation, they should exhibit the traits that the company values. It also helps to talk to other executives and employees about what a leader means to them.

“If you can understand what [your] people are looking for in leaders and what [your] leaders are looking for and then [your] values and how it all aligns for that, you’ll be able to use that for succession planning and throughout the entire employee experience,” Barrett said.

Once you collect those insights, you can map out the core competencies future leaders need to develop. At SpotHero, its values include empathy for others, empowering employees and a willingness to learn. It looks for employees who exhibit those traits to move into leadership roles, but also incorporates them into its training. Within its “Gearing Up for People Management Program,” for instance, SpotHero recently held a course on empathy, which included learning how to have difficult conversations and communicate clearly, Barrett said. 

“We focus on promoting trust and empowerment because no one is in the office 24/7 now, and if that’s the case, people have to trust you, you have to trust them and you have to empower them to get the work done,” he said.

But not every future leader needs the same training. Wolfe suggests conducting internal assessments of each leader to measure a leader’s competency in the skills you identify as most important. 

Tests like the DiSC Assessment — which evaluates a person’s personality on four main traits, discipline, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness — can help leaders identify what their leadership style is like, Wolfe said. From there, you can tailor training to address those strengths and weaknesses.

Read OnHow to Be a Better Manager

 

DEI Needs to Be a Focus in Your Leadership Development Plan

No matter how hard an employee works, managers and existing leaders are still the ones who determine the fate of an employee’s development.

They decide who has access to leadership training, who gets to lead a new project, and ultimately, who gets promoted. 

Too often, Felicia Jadczak sees company leaders still favoring people “in their network” for those opportunities. Jadczak is the co-CEO and head of training at She+ Geeks Out, a DEI consulting firm. In this case, “in their network” can mean a junior employee who went to the same university as them, one who has a family friend in common or someone with similar life experiences as them.

“That’s where you start to see this split happen in terms of who’s getting access to those resources, who’s getting access to career coaching to be put into the pipeline.”

Only 29 percent of senior management are women, according to jobs board website Leftronic’s 2021 report. It’s often young, cisgender white men who get those opportunities, Jadczak said.

Whether conscious or unconscious, bias can play a significant role in shaping a company’s leadership pipeline. Even when a company’s overall demographics are diverse, there’s often a diversity gap at the leadership level. That’s because men are typically evaluated based on potential, whereas women and people from underrepresented backgrounds are judged based on what they’ve accomplished, Jadczak said.

As a result, employees from underrepresented groups get squeezed out of the leadership pipeline and eventually leave the company altogether.

“That’s where you start to see this split happen in terms of who’s getting access to those resources, who’s getting access to career coaching to be put into the pipeline,” Jadczak said. “You’ll see a widening of the gap because there are certain folks considered based on what you think they can do, and others who never get that consideration.”

There’s a couple of ways to tackle this challenge. The first step is to incorporate DEI training into your leadership training, Jadczak said. This will raise awareness among leaders about the ways unconscious bias shapes who they’re targeting for development opportunities.

But it’s also important to be transparent about your career ladder. Outline the career path and what skills a person needs to develop to take that next step in their career.

HR leaders should also reinforce to their managers the importance of having frequent career discussions in one-on-one meetings. In the past, Barrett has incorporated talent reviews to give managers a mechanism to discuss an employee’s development and where they want to be in their career.

“Having those talent review conversations leads to succession planning,” Barrett said. “It’s really about understanding the people on your team’s desires, their capabilities and what you need for the future.”

When leadership opportunities do arise, don’t be afraid to look around and ask yourself, “Who are we missing?,” Jadczak said. That can be a useful strategy to reframe the discussion when you have two employees with matching experience vying for the same role.

“Maybe we have a team of nine men and one woman, so maybe we don’t need another man to be part of this [leadership] team because we’ve got that viewpoint represented already,” Jadczak said. “So that can be super helpful to get out of that habit of saying, ‘They’re all great, so I’m just going to go with this person because I got a good vibe from them.’’

 

Find Training That’s Relevant to Your Industry

A crucial component of any leadership development plan is training. While employees can hone some of their leadership chops on the job, these courses provide a safe space to develop the skills they need.

If you have really good training, it gives employees a safe space to learn the tools and principles they need to better manage or lead their team, said Caitlin Golden, VP of HR at the digital marketing agency closerlook.

There’s just one problem — the lessons don’t always stick.

Golden recalled running a training session at her previous company, a creative advertising agency, that focused more on sales than it did on selling creative marketing. Once the team completed it, the lessons were immediately forgotten.

“It’s really hard to apply [the training] wholesale if it isn’t specific to your company or what you do,” Golden said.

To fix this, it’s important to first identify the skills that you want your leaders to develop. This will give you a sense of what training to invest in. It also creates a shared language within the company about what it means to be a leader, Golden said.

“If you’re able to incorporate some of your company’s values into the training and draw some of those parallels, it just makes it all more personalized.”

Closerlook’s training curriculum encompasses lessons on delegating work, how to build trust, how to be a coach, DEI and communication, among others. Its parent company, Fishawack Health, runs the training through its learning and development team. It’s a three-month program that includes one 90-minute session each week. Each quarter a new cohort of employees (a mix of current managers, senior staff members and even junior employees tabbed by their managers) will go through the training.

Since the training is run internally, it ensures the lessons are relevant to the culture and challenges of the company. This makes it easier for the trainees to take those lessons into their work, Golden said. They also supplement the curriculum with a leadership coach, who spends time with each person in the training to help them apply the training material.

If you’re outsourcing your training, Golden suggests finding a program that’s either relevant to your company’s industry or customizable. The more you can incorporate your company values and challenges into the curriculum, the more likely the message is to stick.

“If you’re able to incorporate some of your company’s values into the training and draw some of those parallels, it just makes it all more personalized,” Golden said. “It helps people feel like, ‘I’m learning to do this for my company.’”

It’s also helpful to look for programs that provide their lessons in increments. When the training is crammed into a day-long seminar, it’s impossible for employees to retain all of that information.

“I’m loving that there are more spaced out sessions,” Golden said. “Every week you’re coming in learning something new, as opposed to sitting in a room for a half day or full day and learning everything [at once].”

 

Consider Mentorship, Coaching and Sponsorship Programs

No one becomes a leader on their own. Mentors, coaches and sponsors all have an integral role to play in a person’s development. It’s important not to overlook one for the others.

Mentors are the nurturers. They can be an employee’s manager or someone on a different team, but the key is that they’re invested in a person’s development, Barrett said. They listen to the employee’s challenges, offer feedback to help them learn and send them resources to expand their skills.

Incorporating a mentorship program can be a useful way to ensure everyone has access to someone who can support them.

“Your mentor isn’t necessarily your manager or coach, it’s someone who you can talk to and say, ‘This is the situation and this is what I did,’” Barrett said.  “And they can say, ‘Great job and here’s what you can do next.’ Or, ‘Here’s what you could have done differently.’” 

But mentors can’t solve everything. While a mentor can give an employee all the tools they need to grow, they aren’t always in the room where career decisions are made. To become a leader, an employee needs a sponsor — someone in the room who can speak up for them when management discusses career opportunities.

“Sometimes, it’s just helpful to have an outside person come in for your leaders and walk them through like, ‘What do you feel like you’re doing well? Where are you struggling? And how do we get past some of those thoughts around the struggles that we’re having?’”

Developing an equitable sponsorship model often comes down to increasing awareness around privilege and unconscious bias. The more leaders understand the different backgrounds and experiences employees have, the more likely they are to challenge their preconceived assumptions about who deserves a shot, Jadczak said.

“Unless a leader is actively examining their privilege and aware of it and working on understanding how that impacts themselves, the people they work with and the companies they’re working in, then it’s not impossible to grow and become diverse and inclusive, but it’s going to be so much harder,” Jadczak said. 

Finally, a coach helps a rising leader hone their leadership skills. While a leadership training class provides general strategies, a coach personalizes them.

Golden suggests bringing in a coach from outside the organization. This gives the employee a neutral space to talk through their challenges as a leader and get feedback on what they can do better.

“Sometimes, it’s just helpful to have an outside person come in for your leaders and walk them through like, ‘What do you feel like you’re doing well? Where are you struggling? And how do we get past some of those thoughts around the struggles that we’re having?,’” Golden said. “It also sends a big signal that like you are, again, investing in me as an individual.”

Read OnCoaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

 

Delegate Tasks That Help Employees Develop Leadership Skills

Future leaders aren’t grown in a lab. While classroom training is important, employees need on-the-job experience to develop the skills they need to eventually rise through the ranks.

After all, a common prerequisite for many leadership roles is experience as a leader.

Fortunately, there are several different ways to develop those skills that don’t require the employee to be a manager. They can lead an upcoming project, volunteer to organize a resource group, attend a conference or shadow a senior-level leader.

Those tasks can end up being a valuable training ground for a future leader to learn how to think more strategically, foster talent and manage a team, Barrett said.

While an employee bears some responsibility to initiate or volunteer for those opportunities, it’s important to remember the manager still plays a significant role in determining whether or not they have access to them.

“I was able to work in so many different ways and so many different projects that maybe my leader would have initially done, but they passed over to me.”

To ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to develop their skills, Golden suggests incorporating career goal discussions into all one-on-ones. This gives the employee an opportunity to vocalize where they want to be in their career and helps the manager determine what skills they need to reach that goal. When those development opportunities come up, the manager is more likely to think of that team member.

Transparency is also crucial. When SpotHero decided to create an executive advisory committee, Barrett announced it at an all-hands meeting and allowed anyone to apply. This gave everyone, including people who may not have manager or VP in their title, an opportunity to lead.

But you don’t need a company-wide initiative to create those opportunities either.

One of the best things a manager can do to cultivate future talent is to delegate, Golden said. Every manager’s plate overflows with tasks at one point or another. Giving a junior employee the opportunity to lead a meeting or run a small project will mean more to their development than it would for the manager to keep it to themself.

Barrett said those experiences were crucial in his development as a leader.

“I was able to work in so many different ways and so many different projects that maybe my leader would have initially done, but they passed over to me,” Barrett said.

 

Signal to Employees That You Believe in Their Growth

Within any leadership development strategy, there’s always the risk that you spend time and resources developing an employee only for them to take their newfound skills and leave.

In some ways, turnover is impossible to avoid. Sometimes the employee re-evaluates their career and decides the company is no longer a good fit for them. Other times, you might not have an opening and you have to be OK letting them go, Barrett said.

Still, there are steps you can take to mitigate turnover.

“If you think that a person can [become a leader], maybe they can’t do it right now, but let’s help them get there. Guess what? You’ll be providing opportunities for them to grow.”

The top reason people leave a job is for career opportunities, according to Work Institute, an employee engagement and retention consulting firm. Having a leadership development plan and a transparent career growth plan will help to limit some of those employees from leaving. But you also have to challenge your employees, Barrett said.

“It’s about giving them work that is going to challenge them and that’s going to help build their skills,” Barrett said. “If there is one reason people leave outside of personal reasons, it’s for that career growth.” 

You can also use training to signal your investment in a junior employee, Golden said. She suggests setting up a nomination system for training opportunities. While employees should have the opportunity to volunteer, managers should also be encouraged to nominate people for upcoming training programs, conferences and seminars.

“Make sure people know this isn’t something you should feel obligated to go to,” Golden said. “We want you to feel like we have picked you for this opportunity because we are investing in you, we believe in you and your growth.”

Still, the most important step a manager can take is to believe their employees can grow. Too often, employees become pigeonholed because a manager fixates on their limitations. When that happens, the only way for them to grow is to leave.

Keeping an open mind can make all the difference in a person’s development. 

“One thing that I’ve learned in my early days is that your thoughts lead to behaviors which lead to your end result,” Barrett said. “If you think that a person can [become a leader], maybe they can’t do it right now, but let’s help them get there. Guess what? You’ll be providing opportunities for them to grow.”  

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