8 Success Drivers for Leadership Development Programmes

The results are finally in, and, YES, leadership development programmes really do work…
Not only that, but the drivers that make for successful leadership development programmes have now been identified.

A major review of leadership development programmes has just been published; a meta-analysis of 335 leadership development studies across 26,573 individual programmes using the global best practice Kirkpatrick Four Levels® to reveal the success drivers for Reaction, Learning, Transfer (ie Behaviour) and Results.

The research firstly tells us that well-designed and well-delivered leadership development programmes do positively impact at all four Kirkpatrick levels, including the all-important transfer to workplace practice and organisational results.

For the first time this research tells us which drivers have the most impact on effectiveness of leadership development programmes.

At ODI we are delighted to bring these findings to your notice alongside our practical suggestions so you can get best value from the programmes you design and deliver.

1.  Base your programme on a needs analysis

A needs analysis positively impacts learning and transfer relative to those programmes which are not needs driven.

Your Action Plan: Build your programme to fill the ‘gaps’ between the leadership practices your participants have and the practices you want.  Collect and use objective information from targeted reviews to identify the gaps; make sure you develop in the critical gaps first as you won’t have the resources to cover them all.

2.  Focus on soft skills

Soft skills content (interpersonal and intrapersonal skills) positively impacts results relative to hard skills content (business skills), even though business skills are easier to learn and transfer.

Action Plan: Prioritise soft skills development in your leadership development programme – it will be harder going but the rewards are there – a positive influence on direct reports of the participants (the recipients of improved leadership behaviours) and on longer-term organisation outcomes.

3.  Select your participants carefully

Voluntary registration positively impacts transfer relative to compulsory registration.

Action Plan: Select volunteers to join your programme with the support of their line manager. Those who don’t want to be there shouldn’t be there – use their place for a candidate who will engage, learn and change.  Although this may take longer to get widespread organisation change it will give you better results across the individuals who are up for personal practice change; each of them a positive role model for others.

4.  Use facilitators and face-to-face events

Facilitator-led face-to-face events positively impact learning and transfer relative to self-administered or virtual training.

Action Plan: Leadership behaviours and practices are learned and transferred best when they are taught by experienced facilitators working face-to-face with your participants.  Self-administered, virtual and remote learning come a poor second in this space.  Make sure your participants get plenty of face-to-face time to learn and practise under supervision; online and virtual add value as a supplement, but never as the main deal for leadership development.

5.  Work in time-spaced modules that include information, demonstration and practise; with strong workplace linkages

Multi-mode delivery (information, demonstration and practise) positively impact learning relative to single-mode delivery; multiple sessions space out over time positively impact results relative to single block programmes and ‘boot camps’.

Your Action Plan: Break your programme up into half-day or one-day delivery modules with time in between for participants to change practices at work; four to six weeks is optimal. Mix it up in experiential modules which provide knowledge, demonstrate best practices, and give participants opportunity to step out changes during the workshop through exercises and scenarios. 

6.  Longer is better

Longer programmes positively impact results relative to shorter programmes.

Your Action Plan: Extend your formal programme for as long as resources will allow; create a long tail with ‘brown bag’ sessions and masterclasses to reinforce the learning, and participant sharing of workplace experiences to support transfer and results. 

7.  Use feedback

Feedback positively impacts transfer.

Your Action Plan: Feedback from others is how participants can best assess their success at practice change and focus on areas for improvement.  Line manager engagement with your participants is central to this process; they are best placed to observe and constructively comment.  To be effective at giving feedback your line managers may themselves need some skills training in coaching conversations.  Other forms of feedback, including 180-Degree and 360-Degree reviews, can also add value. 

8.  Step up the transfer support – especially for senior leaders

Senior leaders struggle with transfer; less effective at it by a factor of 4 times relative to lower-level leaders.

Your Action Plan: Make sure that transfer is well resourced in your design – the common weak point in leadership development programmes.  Recruit your line managers to support the transfer process at work.  Give your participants tools to support their transfer efforts and follow them up individually and with group events (such as audio or video conferences) to share transfer stories. Your senior leaders will most likely benefit from external coaches and specific transfer tools to prioritise their transfer activities.

These success drivers are based on this research report:

Lacerenza, C. N., Reyes, D. L., Marlow, S. L., Joseph, D. L., & Salas, E. (2017). Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(12), 1686-1718.