Leadership Development has been a hot topic of discussion among many growing companies in the past year.
With the numerous concerning “incidents” at all sorts of prominent companies, the idea of throwing managers into the deep end and seeing what happens just doesn’t appeal to anyone anymore.
Moreover, the changing workplace demographics and the shifting culture around leadership and management in general are driving the need for HR and L&D professionals to revisit and level up their programs and initiatives in this area.
To help you figure out how to do just that, we asked 13 People Ops leaders (from SurveyMonkey, Headspace, Evernote, SAP, and others) to share their advice and best practices on what works in Leadership Development today.
Here’s the question we asked:
What advice would you give to an HR / L&D leader who’s considering implementing their first leadership development program?
The responses varied, just like our pool of contributors who stem from different industries, company sizes, and professional backgrounds.
But despite the differences, every single one of the contributors had thought-provoking insights to share, and we’re excited to pass along their advice.
Enjoy articles like this one?
Subscribe to Hazel Blog and get hand-crafted, deeply researched essays and interviews delivered every few weeks.Subscribe to Hazel Blog →
Without further ado, here are 13 People Ops and L&D leaders sharing proven Leadership Development best practices:
Karen Callahan, Director of Talent Development at SurveyMonkey
“To create a successful leadership development program, we knew we first needed to articulate what we — at SurveyMonkey — believe are the most important pillars of good management. We looked at research, talked to our leaders, and then distilled what we learned into a set of five crisp expectations: Build a world-class team, Lead with a clear vision, Give care and attention, Champion growth, and Radiate accountability. With those as our guiding principles, we can then dive deeper into each to work on growing those skills. For example, at SurveyMonkey we strongly value curiosity. So for “Champion growth,” we have a 5-week session on coaching: how you can use curiosity and asking good questions to help your team members navigate through obstacles.
“Since our managers have a wide range of experience and expertise, we also encourage carving out time for managers to learn from one another other. We can’t create a curriculum that’s going to meet everyone where they are. But we can get people together and facilitate conversations around these pillars of management, so they can share stories, ask for advice, and build a community with the people who are facing the same challenges.”
Learn more about Karen here.
Tom Freeman, Learning & Development Manager at Headspace
“First identify who your managers are and ask them what they’d find useful to learn about or develop in.
“If you’re part of a fast growing organization then you might have managers at various stages of their career, so it’s important to find out what they need. Also ask them how they learn best. This may be e-learning, a workshop or even a training bot.
“When it comes to content, use science and research to back up your training. Also use stories from your experience to help bring this to life. Good luck!”
Learn more about Tom here.
Laura Stepp, VP of People & Workplace at Jama Software
“It is tempting when you are designing a leadership development program to believe that it is your job to know what that program should contain, but the truth is that your managers will design it for you if you just ask them what they need and what their biggest problems are.
“Gather user data first and foremost to ensure that your programs hit the mark for your managers in your particular culture.”
Learn more about Laura here.
James Pratt, Vice President of People Operations at Socrata
“Before you implement a program to develop managers, consider carefully what behaviors you want in your managers and how they reinforce the culture of your company.
“Then carefully select your managers for their ability to reinforce those behaviors through their actions. Culture isn’t written on the walls, it’s lived every day. Be careful about promoting your “top performers” into management. The skills of a great manager are largely orthogonal to those of a great individual contributor. And when you promote an individual contributor you’re losing some of their capacity to their new management duties. Look for people with good emotional and self-awareness to be your front-line managers.
“Once you’ve carefully selected your managers, the job of training them begins. There’s a lot of content out there to develop the practical tools of management: delegation, goal setting, feedback, 1:1s etc. Where you can most help your managers is developing them as human beings: helping them increase their emotional and self-awareness, helping them connect with their team members human-to-human. Most importantly, train your managers on their responsibilities as they relate to the unique culture and values of your company.”
Thomas P. Studdert, Ed.D., Vice President of Learning & Development at DiscoverOrg
“Before you do anything, I recommend asking this question, “What am I trying to solve by implementing a leadership development program?”
“When you ask this question and come up with specific answers, it helps you tailor your program to the unique needs of your managers. While there are standard managerial themes and topics, each business/organization has unique challenges to address.
“After you know what you are trying to solve, survey the scene. What is senior management needing? What is missing in your leaders/managers? What do you want them to be able to do at the end of your program? Answer these questions so you can truly address they “why” behind what you are doing. In addition, this helps you get buy-in from everyone.
“Finally, stop calling it a manager development program. Call it a Leadership Development program. Identify Leaders! Not Managers! Prepare people in leadership positions to be stronger leaders by teaching them more than just skills. Give them the theoretical training, action planning, on-the-job practicing, experiential activities, and simulation learning to move them from being managers to being change agents for your organization.”
(Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article referred to “Leadership Development” as “Manager Development”. Thankfully, Tom made us reconsider. Lesson learned! :)
Julie Abel-Hunt, VP Global Learning and Development at SAP
“Start by evaluating what leadership culture means within your organization. Is there an appetite for change (including giving permission to leaders to take the time to learn as well as the financial investment needed)? What values, principles and outcomes are you looking to affect? Too often, businesses blindly adapt industry leadership competencies that don’t reflect their own organizations.
“Ideas for getting started:
- Make a clear business case that outlines the “why, what and how” of your proposal
- Be explicit about why this change is critical to the success of your organization (KPIs like competitive advantage, retention and employee engagement)
- Set meaningful targets for improvement (An increase in leadership trust, number of women leaders, leaders in the pipeline, etc.)
- Recommendations should include funding models that are either cost-center centric or funded by the learning organization. Depending on the number of leaders who need to be touched, this may be a 3 to 5-year plan
- Present a needs analysis that includes the right people and feedback like an executive sponsor, business stakeholders, leaders and HR Business Partners
- A full analysis should include the capability areas that you want to target, measurements of success, guiding principles and those “red threads” that should be carried throughout the framework
- Build a continuous learning model to support leaders “post-training” and reinforce key behaviors (check out Bersin by Deloitte’s model)
- Consider the competencies and journey and what leaders need at different points in their development
- Use a balanced model of instructor-led, virtual instructor-led, social / community, experiential, e-learning and gamification to attract all types of learners
- Use assessments and coaching to support the changes you want to see
“Stay true to what is most important in building the success of your leaders and you’ll accelerate their success for the future and evolve them so that they continue to grow and innovate.”
Michael Wanderer, VP of People at Handy
“Start with a framework.
“Define and codify exactly what successful people managers are expected to do, what outcomes you are trying to achieve, and assess your current managers accordingly. Use this data to prioritize the content. Ultimately, ensure that you have a mechanism to measure the impact of your investment. While we can debate the art of good management and how to get there, the impact is concrete and readily identifiable.”
Learn more about Michael here.
Leslie Collin, Director of People & Culture at Unbounce
“Ask more questions of more participants than you think you need to, before you embark on a program. Find out exactly how the participants want to grow in their roles. Enabling a leadership development program to sync with the career goals of those attending will help to up-level the knowledge, skills and abilities of your team, and also transforms it into a driver of engagement and commitment for those attending. Aligning the desire for individual professional growth of leaders to the growth of the organization is key to ensuring “stickiness” of any training or development program.”
Charlie Judy, Founder & CEO at WorkXO
“There is no shortage of purported formulae for managerial success; there are countless leadership gurus who will claim to have the secret sauce; and there are shelve upon shelve of self-help guides to better, stronger, more effective management. But what really makes managers most successful in your organization is in fact distinct and unique to your organization. What makes a manager effective at [insert the name of your favorite company here] is not necessarily what will make a manager successful at your organization. The more you can tailor the content, the approach, and the program in general to what really drives success in your organization, the more impactful it will be. Consider identifying your top most successful managers and having them define the curriculum based almost entirely on how they’ve found success.”
Michelle Wagner, SVP People at Evernote
“A great leadership development program has to fit the organization and culture.
“My approach is to first, define the skills it takes to be great at managing inside your company. At Evernote, we call these “superpowers”. Once decided, we create training sessions, meet-ups, and ways to apply the skills that support these competencies. Make sure those applications tie back to the business — for instance, if one of your superpowers is “Inspire” then you’ll want to teach what that is, show managers how to do it, and align it to a company goal, customer or strategy so they can apply it practically. Approaching leadership development with structure is key — define the need, teach it, apply it and do it by bringing people together to learn from one another and bring the entire org up!”
Cameron Stewart, Chief Operations Officer at TUNE
“One important concept to consider when you are beginning to implement a leadership development program is understanding both employee and leadership expectations of the cultural experience of your company.
“Consider having an outside company run a cultural assessment, where leadership and ICs are interviewed to understand what values and artifacts currently live within the culture. This is important to ensure that the values resonate with the employee experiences day to day. You can then curate your leadership development program to have the right mix of soft skills that blend with the cultural values, along with the tangible hard skills that drive accountability and productivity.”
Lou Tufnell, Growth & Development Sr. Manager at Medallia
“Last year we completely re-invented our approach to Leadership Enablement at Medallia. We continue to learn about what’s working and what’s not.
“Here are some of the things we couldn’t have anticipated a year ago:
- “Freedom needs a framework. We initially adopted a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to our menu. What we have learnt is that leaders appreciate a little more structure and direction along with a compelling “why” behind each topic. This would have also helped with adoption.
- Data tells half the story. We have been tracking the Net Promoter Score of each part of our program (which tells us how much our leaders ‘would recommend their learning experience’) but we haven’t yet nailed the measure of the longer term impact of what they are learning. Another challenge in a high-growth environment is that behavior change takes 12-18 months, but we move fast - we like quarterly metrics for success.
- Adoption takes A LOT of time and needs champions. We built a program we thought would be in high demand. Our return rate is excellent but it takes senior leadership encouragement and role modeling to spread the word and advocate for protected time for learning - that’s the signal that this is a priority.
“And here is what we predicted that has been proven so far:
- “Leaders need and appreciate ‘time to think’. Our days are often so full that when it comes to learning, the first thing we need to do is to create some mental space and shift gears. We do this by getting into storytelling, always related to the leadership topic we are there to focus on. Within the ‘labs’ (our 2 hour workshops) we allow time for written reflection with breakouts and pair exercises for practice and feedback.
- Accountability promotes action. We encourage leaders to land on the ‘one thing’ they will do differently as a result of what they learnt. By sharing that in the room, and with a ‘buddy’ they are much more likely to follow through. The “one thing” is important - a small change can have a big impact.
- ‘Wisdom comes from within’. Whilst we have carefully curated and created content to communicate frameworks and best practices on a particular topic, we give leaders the chance to come up with their own solutions rather than ‘tell them what to do’. We see ourselves as ‘guides’ rather than ‘experts’ and take time to help the class challenge each other asking lots of open questions. The solution is always in there, it’s just often hidden and needs a little help getting to the surface.”
Learn more about Lou here.
Stephanie Mardell, Head of People at Button
“Practice makes perfect. Development programs must be interactive.
“Design content and activities that get your managers practicing how to design and write S.M.A.R.T goals (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound) as well as give useful, specific feedback that comes from an authentic place of care.”
Want more advice?
It’s a 6,000-word resource, chalk-full of best practices on how to design and implement an exceptional Leadership Development Program this year. Best part: There are no forms to fill out and no hoops to jump through.