Build, Buy or Borrow: Lessons in Leadership Development

Businesses are being constantly challenged to do more with less, flex to changing market conditions, and ensure that their entire workforce is pulling in the same direction. Many companies are reinvesting in their leadership development initiatives, knowing that people—more specifically leaders—are the make-or-break factor in an organization’s ability to achieve its goals. To unlock the promise of people, organizations have an opportunity to craft leadership development programs in alignment with organizational strategy. By doing so, program leaders will meet sponsors’ expectations, all while deploying a program that’s on-time and on-budget.

Getting started

The first step in implementing a successful leadership development program involves defining the goals and objectives. Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish with your program, you can move onto the work of detailed design and execution, or who will do the work? Options include outsourcing to training companies, universities, or to field experts who can plan the curriculum and events. Or your program could be built by internal resources, building on the perspectives of internal leaders to share their knowledge throughout the organization. Program content is the foundational element, so determining where this will come from should precede any decisions about program deployment.

Where will your leadership content, speakers, and application come from?

There’s a traditional choice here between providing your own content, contracting external speakers and companies to provide what you need, or some combination. There are many sources of well researched leadership development content–from case studies to speakers to facilitators, and depending on the specific goals and objectives of your program, there’s likely a place for some of this expertise to be brought in.

However, we believe that when organizations take entirely off-the-shelf solutions, they often miss the chance to address the nuanced challenges and opportunities that drew them to leadership development in the first place. To effectively meet your goals and objectives, the program must be closely tied to your organization’s culture and strategy, in a way that your learners can apply to their work. For this reason, we recommend that off-the-shelf solutions make up small portions of your program for carefully considered segments and may need to be supplemented with internal perspective. For example, an expert speaker on innovation might be necessary if your company is struggling and lacks an effective internal subject matter expert. However, an internal voice is powerful in putting the current state of the organization’s innovation situation and their vision for your organization’s future into perspective.

To this end, external vendors will offer to partner with you to develop the content and tailor it to your organization and audience. When you need external support, this is a very valuable service. But ask yourself as you have those conversations–how much are they willing to customize? Would a voice from within your own organization be more effective?

In our experience with clients, we’ve identified three key success factors for a fruitful partnership:

  1. The vendor must get to know the organization and audience very deeply.
  2. The vendor must be truly willing to customize their offerings based on the needs of the organization.
  3. The organization must provide their own internal voices as speakers, panelists, or leading debrief sessions.

Where to go next

Once you’ve developed program content, applying an equal focus on program deployment is equally critical to an impactful program. Again, the key here is alignment to organizational strategy. Program leaders have a variety of factors to weigh when deploying their program, including program delivery channels (e.g. online, in-person, or live through technology) and partners (e.g. program delivery via external vendor, fully in-house, or a combination of both). If you have a HR department that can create and deliver the program, don’t forget to apply the same rigor and management you would with a vendor relationship.

As leaders embark on their journey of shaping successful leadership development programs, what are the actionable considerations they need to keep in mind?


  • The program’s goals and objectives must be constantly considered in the program design and execution. It’s easy to stray from the original intent due to pressures from vendors or even your own eager executives.
  • The culture and strategy of the organization must be closely aligned with every aspect of the program, whether created internally or externally.
  • The organization’s leadership should be closely involved throughout the planning and execution of the program. Not only does executive sponsorship give credibility to a program, but the employees who connect with executives will feel greater engagement.
  • Incorporate cohorts and strategic relationship growth in addition to skill development. This is key to ensuring not only that the learnings will be applied to day-to-day work, but enhances the dissemination of learnings throughout the organization.

No matter the balance of internal versus external resources selected for your leadership development program, the key to lasting success is to ensure that your program—and supporting content, speakers, and formats—is authentically grounded in your organization’s culture and strategy.