Building a Successful Leadership Development Program

Executives in every industry are facing pressure as gaps are widening in leadership pipelines, retention is becoming more difficult, and low employee engagement is affecting productivity. Senior executives turn to HR for leadership programming to “fix” the issues, but often have the problem and solution already solidified in their minds. Unfortunately for the business and its employees, the solutions executives have in mind may not actually meet the real needs of the organization or its people.

To avoid wasteful programming that fails to show results, HR leadership needs a disciplined approach reflecting an unbiased understanding of both the current needs of their employees and leaders and how to develop those leaders for their future leadership roles. Programs should be developed through a rigorous and business focused approach that avoids the commonly made error that one influential executive knows best.

North Highland recently worked with a large hospital company to develop, test and refine a successful process for creating leadership development solutions. These efforts led to lauded programming that executive stakeholders are proud of and have had measurable results for the organization.

Step 1: Define the goal of the effort: What are the business needs that need to be solved? What is the desired impact of the effort? How does this tie into the corporate/division/facility strategy? What, if any, detrimental impact does the current state cause?

  • Tools and Activities: Consider stakeholder interviews, focus groups, and surveys to document requirements and perspectives. Consider different stakeholders’ authority and influence as you translate these findings into design recommendations.
  • Validate your recommendations with key sponsors before moving forward to ensure direction is correct.

Step 2: Audience definition: Determine who is in and out of scope for the program. Consider the selection/nomination process.


  • Examples: nominations by leaders, per talent review results, new-to-role, promotion potential criteria, etc.

Step 3: Perform a needs assessment: Define the current state and future state. What is the gap between them? Who are your executive sponsors and key stakeholders? Will training solve the issue?



  • Tools and Activities: SME Interviews, leadership interviews, talent review data and analytics to show trends or needs, surveys of potential audience and/or their supervisors, availability and use of existing training and development programs, and a stakeholder assessment

Step 4: Define objectives and outcomes: Determine what the program is meant to accomplish considering the high-level goal and output from the needs assessment. Consider how success will be measured and create a detailed plan of any pre and post-tests, surveys, or program evaluations. Receive executive buy-in for Steps 1-4.



  • Examples: Promotion readiness, increased operational excellence, improved facility KPIs, etc.
  • Learning objectives: knowledge, skills and abilities, and identify program success criteria
  • Communications plan: including audiences, format (emails, meetings, etc.), timing, and ownership.
  • Business value: How does the program contribute to the business, such as through a Capstone or support of a business initiative?

Step 5: Consider resources: What are the financial resources required for delivery (speakers, venue, AV), travel (hotel, flights), and ongoing program support and maintenance (Program Director, Coordinator, etc.)?

Step 6: Draft program format and curriculum framework: Consider the needs of the audience and select the appropriate format and curriculum components. Each will have their own benefits and limitations.



  • Format Considerations: Financial resources, one global solution versus tailored local interventions, need for in-person networking, ongoing cohort versus one-time event, and speed of delivery
  • Format Options: In-person cohorts, field-based trainings, workshops, summits, and forums
  • Curriculum Options and Considerations:
    • Training: Videos and online courses, facilitated virtual training, external SME speakers, and case studies
    • In-house leaders as teachers: Senior leader speakers and internal mentoring
      • Application: Hands-on skill labs, Capstone projects, best-practice sharing, and executive coaching



Step 7: Ongoing engagement: After program completion, consider ways to keep these employees in leadership roles, both within and outside the development program.



  • Mentors: Leverage these leaders as mentors (informal or formal) to the next group of participants. Continue to support networking with other leaders.
  • Experts: Include these leaders in curriculum reviews and in defining improvements to development programs.
  • Key Talent: Track these employees as high-potentials and a key part of the leadership pipeline.

It is critical to ensure Leadership Development programs are specifically tied to business goals and strategies, are developed with a clear and supported business case, and are focused on driving outcomes. In doing so it not only provides high value that benefits individual employees, but the organization overall.