Differentiating Leadership Development

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Executive leadership development shares similarities with other learning programs. For example, it must direct itself to the specific needs of its audience, and learner reflection is important to increase retention for on-the-job application. For the senior learner, application of knowledge and skills is tantamount to success of the company. A support structure should be in place with regular reminders to help senior leaders apply new knowledge and behaviors in how they lead to affect change.

In what ways does leadership development differ from other learning programs? Several key areas standout:

  • Any leadership offering must differentiate itself in content and delivery from other learning programs geared to a less experienced group of learners.

  • Senior leadership learning must be presented within the context of organizational needs.

  • Leadership development must include a strong application component.

  • Leadership doesn't work alone and there needs to be recognition of the need for interpersonal and communication skills development within the learning program.

Expected Outcomes and Skill Gaps

Senior leaders may have skill gaps that don't allow them to successfully lead their organization's strategic direction or meet individual performance goals. If leaders are expected to execute strategies, it is important to recognize a leader's role within the organization, which spans across, and up and down the organization. Leaders don't work in a vacuum.

Therefore, knowledge gain is not the only expected outcome of a successful leadership development program. Equally as important is providing a process and orientation of how to apply new skills to organizational needs in order to affect change, through collaboration and teamwork.

The five top critical skills for leaders are:

  • Driving and managing change.

  • Executing organizational strategy.

  • Identifying and developing future talent.

  • Coaching and developing others.

  • Fostering creativity and innovation.

Design Recommendations

Leadership development is most successful when it includes:

  • Tying leadership culture, values, practices, and development to business strategy.

  • Creating strategically relevant collective learning opportunities.

  • Integrating leadership development architecture to development initiatives for maximum impact.

  • Using leadership development to support the execution of business strategy and long-term needs to develop individual competencies, while building immediately needed organizational capability to address business challenges.

Understanding the needs and challenges of senior leaders can help determine how to build a program directed to this target group.

Listed below are high-level parameters of how a senior leadership program might take shape.

  • Customized: Leadership development at the most senior level requires programming at an advanced level so that it's perceived as "differentiated" from learning opportunities directed to a less experienced learner.

  • Targeted Content: Senior leaders need training in content areas not usually required of others, including such topics as: business acumen, strategic planning and implementation, and business financial planning.

  • Community of Practice: For senior leaders, it is important to share challenges and stories with peers. A community of practice can include a cross organizational and cross industry collaborative working environment that offers feedback, support, and input and advice to members based on personal experiences and new learning outcomes.

  • Value Proposition: In defining leadership development, there needs to be a clear value proposition for the organization, and definable, measurable individual goals that tie to organizational needs and success.

  • Retention: An identified risk factor for organizations offering leadership development to emerging or current leaders is retention. Ensuring there is a process in place for managing development while also managing career paths and advancement, is an important component of a leadership program. (Advising companies on career and growth planning to ensure leaders' retention is a secondary requirement of leadership development.)

  • Self-directed: A leadership program must include prerequisite self-directed learning, assessments and evaluation.

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