Leadership Development: The Six Best Practices

In our recent study, High-Impact Leadership Development: Trends, Best Practices, and Industry Solutions, we identified the best practices and the top providers in leadership development. Our study covered all aspects of leadership development and evaluated a number of HR consultancies. With rich data in hand, we revealed six best practices in leadership development that yield business impact.

1.  Develop strong executive engagement: The most important practice of all is to obtain the engagement of top leaders and managers. Their commitment means that the program will be highly regarded, aligned with corporate strategy and focused on the right business issues.  Philips Medical Systems – Ultrasound believes a key to its success is the active role of senior management in shaping, marketing, supporting, and executing the leadership development program. For example,

  • The CEO and executive team are instrumental in defining the deficiencies and identifying the critical content and topics that are the key to successful leadership within the organization. 
  • Senior leaders work closely with program participants to create individual development plans and help them select the top two priorities for action learning.
  • Senior leaders continue to meet with participants to coach and monitor progress on action learning throughout the year.

2.  Define tailored leadership competencies:  Successful leadership development programs are based on identified leadership competencies. By isolating and agreeing upon leadership competencies most important to your business, you will have the foundation for leadership development, as well as succession planning, career development and other talent-related processes. All high-impact programs we’ve studied are built on well-established leadership competency models.  For example, Aetna’s leadership curriculum supports three distinct levels of leadership.  Each training level focuses on specific competencies and builds on the level before it.

  • Foundational – First-level manager content that focuses is on the leadership competency area of engagement and performance; for example, engaging and developing people, and creating accountability.
  • Advanced – Mid-level manager curriculum that targets the leadership competency area of business discipline; for example, executing strategy and working effectively across business units.
  • Mastery – Senior-level manager program that builds the leadership competency area of value creation; for example, driving change and innovation.

3.  Align with business strategy:  Leadership development is far more than management training. As leaders move up in the organization, their skills must shift from people and project management to strategic business and operations management. Organizations such as Agilent, Aetna and Cisco focus heavily on company-specific business strategies in their leadership programs. Such programs cannot be totally comprised of off-the-shelf content. Furthermore, leadership development programs must be included in business conversations and planning. At New York Mellon, senior executives ensure a strong alignment to the culture, values, and strategies of the company.  For example,

  • The top 10 executives meet quarterly, to review how the efforts of the leadership development group are supporting the company’s current business initiatives. The top 30 to 35 executives identified common attributes and assembled them into an organized set of leadership competencies.
  • Executives identify real-time business issues and then spend time listening to and providing feedback on recommended solutions by leadership program participants.

4.  Target all levels of leadership:   Effective leadership development isn’t about training individuals.  Its primary objective should be the development of a leadership team capable of moving a company forward and meeting key strategic objectives.  To do this, every layer of management has to be equally prepared.  At Shell, three primary audiences are targeted.   They are:

  • Line managers participate in a program called Shell Life, which includes basic training in coaching, change management, delegation and development.
  • Functional managers participate in a program that focuses on business leadership, business management, vision and other leadership qualities.
  • Top business leaders are involved in a third program, which focuses on Shell’s business management and uses external education and consultants to train top global leaders.

5.  Apply a comprehensive learning approach:  No sound leadership development program consists solely of an instructor-led training event. Programs must include developmental assignments, 360-degree assessments, meetings with global counterparts, case studies, external education and a wide variety of e-learning and other media to give leaders a complete experience. People learn to lead by doing, so the best leadership development programs focus heavily on experiential learning. The National Basketball Association (NBA) designed a blended leadership program to train the company’s middle managers.  The program format includes five components described as follows:

  • Kick-off – A ½ day in the classroom for an introduction to the program.
  • On-line Instruction – A 3-week period for learners to complete six hours of e-learning.
  • Classroom Instruction – A one day workshop that summarizes the online training and provides opportunity for application, practice and exercises.
  • Review and Coaching.  Three follow-up review and coaching sessions to address principles learned in the course and to help work through any difficult situations.
  • Three Month Review. After 3 months, a one-hour in-class “refresher” course is conducted for the learners to discuss how they have been using the leadership models in their everyday challenges.

6.  Integrate with talent management:  To build a sustainable leadership pipeline, organizations must implement programs to assess leadership potential (part of the performance management process), identify successors to existing leaders and place these individuals into the right development programs as part of the company’s regular business practices.  In fact, one of the biggest indicators of a first-class leadership development program is a set of established practices and a corporate culture that encourages development throughout the enterprise.  At Textron, talent management processes are integrated as follows:

  • Performance Management – One-hundred percent of the worldwide salaried workforce participates in and completes a consistent performance assessment process. The performance management process not only looks at what employees need to get their jobs done, but also allows individuals to plan their careers.
  • Succession Planning – Succession planning at Textron is a process that naturally feeds into the identification, assessment and development of its leaders. The potential of leaders against long-term strategies is assessed and appropriate developmental plans are put into action.
  • Recruitment and Selection – Talent assessments are reviewed through a centralized sourcing and recruitment function which enable the company to identify candidates and ensure a strategic fit, ensure high potential people are moved frequently acorss businesses and functions, and align talent selection with Textron’s core leadership competencies.

In our most recent research, we found that leadership development

is the number one talent management function that needs the

most improvement, as identified by 43% of companies.

In this same study, 60% of companies (up from 51% in 2007)

identified “gaps in the leadership pipeline” as their number one talent issue.  


As companies evaluate their business challenges, we urge them to also consider their current leadership development strategies and think about the steps that they need to take to ensure that their leadership pipelines will be ready and able to execute business strategies that are critical for long-term success.  We highly recommend that they do this by assessing themselves against the six best practices.