Simplifying Leadership Development

Leadership development can be a daunting task for any organization. Drawing from the most complex and simple models of leadership development, most research seems to suggests that leadership development can be boiled down to simply creating experiences that prepare future leaders for their future roles in the organization.  In fact, study after study shows that successful senior managers describe similar experiences that have shaped their development – early work experiences, short-term assignments, other leaders, hardships, and miscellaneous events like training and leadership development programs (McCall, 2010). Simply put, our job in HR is to create and support opportunities for our future leaders to gain these crucial experiences. Here’s an easy framework for how to do it:

  • Define employees’ learning and experience needs. Outline the experiences (i.e. managing others, sustaining business, turning around a business, sales/marketing experience, global experience), competencies (i.e. strategic thinking, business acumen, problem solving, decision-making), key relationships (i.e. key customers, board, community relations, employees) and learning capabilities (i.e. openness to feedback and experience, integrity, comfort with ambiguity, ability to adapt) needed for the next role (Yost & Plunkett, 2010). Define what lessons your future leaders need to learn. This is best done in concert with your leadership team who will best know what it takes to succeed on the job.
  • Link developmental experiences to your leadership needs. After you’ve defined the needs, determine what developmental experiences will best help your future leaders learn or experience what is necessary. For example, if your future leaders need to develop strategic thinking competencies, a formal training program may be selected as the best avenue for developing this skill. Whereas, if your future leaders will need experience managing a business transition, on-the-job experience may be the best developmental option. Such experiences will mostly include on-the-job development (particularly for experience and relationship needs), but should also include formal training, mentoring, stretch assignments, and feedback/coaching. The developmental methodology should be chosen to adequately address the need.
  • Create effective HR practices to support development. HR should be able to support leadership development with different tools and methodologies, either created and managed in-house or through the use of external vendors capable of providing services (McCall, 2010):
    • Assessments – assessment of ability, potential, and development over time
    • Performance management – appraisal/evaluation of job performance to measure developmental and performance progress over time
    • Training and developmental programs – access to programs that assist in employees’ development
    • Coaching/feedback – regular feedback provided by others, especcially one’s manager
  • Extend development beyond the classroom…and beyond the workplace. Often, leadership development programs focus too heavily on either on-the-job experiences/development with an absence of formal education and training or focus too heavily on formal education and training with an absence of on-the-job experiences/development. Ideally, the two forms of development should be balanced. For example, the lessons learned in training should extend into the workplace where employees can utilize their newly acquired skills and knowledge and work on business challenges. A blended learning approach is usually advisable.
  • Build development plans. Creating formal development plans that outline developmental activities and goals, timelines, expected results, and criteria for evaluation will help ensure that employees are engaging in developmental experiences. On average, leadership development plans tend to extend across many months and even years. The risk of not building development plans is that the process won’t be taken seriously and follow-up may be lacking.  This can be detrimental to successfully preparing employees for their new roles.
  • Encourage future leaders to build a “personal advisory board.” While having a mentor is beneficial for leadership development, a broader network of mentors with diversified backgrounds and experiences has been found to be more beneficial for future leaders (Higgins & Kram, 2001). Encourage each of your prospect leaders to develop an advisory group whom they can draw on for assistance and feedback throughout their developmental process.
  • Adjust the process as necessary. Leadership development is generally a long process with many experiences and opportunities. Throughout this process, your future leaders will encounter obstacles, perhaps opt out of the career path, or be determined as not fit for the future role. Development plans will need to frequently be adjusted. Make sure that your process is flexible enough to deal with these issues that arise and help employees through obstacles.

Leadership development can be done by any organization – large, mid-size, or small.  It can be as fancy/complex or simple as needed, but ultimately it’s all about creating the experiences that will help your future leaders be successful. Now is likely one of the most ideal times for your future leaders to obtain some unusual business experiences that will prepare them for challenges later. Take advantage of the more turbulent business climate and challenging business conditions to provide your emerging leaders experiences that will help them learn valuable leadership lessons.

Additional Resources

  • Training – For on-site training or workshops on a variety of leadership development topics, please contact
  • Coaching and Assessments – For assistance with 360 feedback initiatives and/or other developmental assessments and coaching programs with your current leaders, please contact
  • Consulting – For project assistance or consulting related to leadership development, career development, and succession planning programs, please contact
  • HR Help Desk (members only) – For additional guidance, articles, and information on leadership development, please contact
  • Surveys – To benchmark how other organizations identify and develop their high potential employees, please click here. Or, to benchmark your organization’s training and development practices, please click here.


  • Higgins, M.C. & Kram, K.E. (2001). Reconcenptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective. Academy of Management Review (26).
  • McCall, M.W.  (2010) Recasting leadership development. Industrial & Organizational Psychology (3).
  • Yost, P.R. & Plunkett, M.M. (2010). Ten catalysts to spark on-the-job development in your organization. Industrial & Organizational Psychology (3).
This entry was posted in General HR, Performance Management, Training & Development and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s