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How to Put Together an Effective Leadership Development Program

By Carol Piras, Managing Partner, The Piras Group

Whether you’re starting from scratch or inheriting a company’s leadership development program, figuring out what type of program to offer and how to get the best return on investment can be daunting.  There are lots of ways to “do” development. Each has an upside and sometimes a downside. Knowing what will fit for your company is important.

Leadership Development Infographic

Many companies have adopted a model for leadership development called the 70-20-10 rule, with 70% of efforts working towards on-the-job development, 20% in coaching and mentoring, and 10% on training. The 70% in on-the-job development with this commonly-used model is a reminder that most learning and development results from on-the-job work experiences. You need not be wedded to this model as the ideal, and may, instead, decide to adopt a 40-40-20 rule, or a 40-10-50 rule between these three focus areas.

Classroom training continues to be the primary method companies use to build leadership and management skills. Why? Traditionally, this has been viewed as the easiest and fastest way to develop skills. (i.e. schedule a class on a given topic and invite participants—end of story.)  But most importantly, the face-to-face nature of training allows participants to learn and practice skills and explore with their peers how and when to apply the skills.

Leadership or executive coaching has become a more recent alternative to classroom training as a way to develop leaders and managers one at a time.  We find that most coaching is still reserved for the top 2 or 3 tiers in a company and has yet to transcend the manager level.

Issues to Consider Before Deciding on a Leadership Development Program

Here are important questions to answer that will help you decide what to do:

  1. Given our company’s strategies, which development options will best support the company’s direction and timelines?
  2. What kind of culture do we have such that one option will play out better than others?  What kind of culture do we want to create and drive in our leaders?
  3. How much infrastructure is required and actually in place to truly support one of these alternatives?
  4. How much investment—time, money, and support— is the company willing to undertake to build skills and at what levels?
  5. What is the best way to involve senior leadership in development? What role do they need to play?
  6. What kind of return on investment are we looking for from development programs? How will success be measured?
  7. How fast do we need to develop leaders?

Some Common Failures in Leadership Development Programs

We find that companies inadvertently embark on mentoring, internal coaching programs, and leadership stretch assignments or projects without the necessary infrastructure and discipline to succeed. Just because a company doesn’t spend hard cold cash on programs doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost. Mentoring programs, for example, are often viewed as an inexpensive way to build capability. Yet, they frequently fail because the discipline, senior leadership commitment, and infrastructure are not in place to sustain it. Not only can there be a financial cost to failure, but the credibility of the effort falls short and negatively impacts future leadership development initiatives.

Alternatively, many companies embark on executive coaching without a well-thought-out plan of who is being coached, why, and what are the expected returns. Coaches are often sent to leaders and stay way longer than necessary and lack the accountability for identifying goals and results desired. Many companies don’t understand what they are hiring in a coach or even how the coaching process is optimized. Many don’t hold the coach and leader accountable for measurable results. Often the coaching ends, or goes on “forever,” without any observable changes occurring.

Finally, without sponsorship by the company’s top leadership, programs tend to limp along. Often they are disconnected from the business strategies. You can have naïve leaders unaware of the value of development. Buy-in, and better yet, periodic involvement in these programs accelerates success.

Whatever the option, leadership development costs money, time and resources. It needs to be an investment that pays off and truly develops leaders and managers.

Leadership Development Pros and Cons Matrices

The series of matrices that follow, one on each of the three focus areas of the leadership development model, provides a number of options to consider in choosing leadership development methods to fit your company’s strategy and culture—and get results. There are pros and cons of each. The costs associated with each vary depending on scope and complexity. 

Click here to download a pdf version of this post: How To Put Together An Effective Leadership Development Program.

If you would like additional information on these options, or a discussion about choices, please give us a call.

Guidance, Coaching, and Mentoring Pros and Cons




Costs & Comments

External coach

Customized and tailored development plan

Behavioral and leadership Learning; accelerated and real time

Allows focus on business results and leadership skills

Objective outsider

Coaches generally have experience in multiple industries and leadership styles

Retention value when positioned properly


More expensive than corporate training

Be careful what you pay for, lots of “coaches”

Companies don’t really know what they want from development or from a coach

Sometimes harder to measure tangible results

Generally for C level, VP & Director level

$15,000-$35,000/pp for 6 months

Internal mentor

Excellent way to transfer knowledge

Great opportunity for senior leaders to engage, teach, model leadership and company values

Less expensive option

Builds x-functional relationships

Strong retention value when positioned properly

Requires internal structure, and training to administer

Senior leaders and commitment of time

Companies woefully underestimate their own time requirements & commitments

Quality varies

Done poorly, can backfire


Don’t fall prey to the internal costs – there are costs in time and energy

Among equals, pick one area to test and focus

Cost to set up program depends on scope

Peer to peer advising/coaching

Same upside as mentoring above

Allows x-functional points of view to be discussed

May be good in a workshop format

You must create an infrastructure to administer

Hard to manage peer’s changing time & commitment

Underestimate of time commitment

Hard to administer without commitment

Cost to set up a program depends on scope

Practice On-the-Job Pros and Cons




Costs & Comments

Job Rotations


Great opportunity to learn roles across the company

Great way to prepare hi-potentials for next level position

Provides for “walking in my shoes” for shorter periods of time

Excellent way to allow a leader to immerse in a role

Must manage this properly and with an infrastructure that can support it

Requires a high level manager/leader maturity for success

Can be dicey for direct reports

Follow up and evaluation critical

High risk, high reward

Don’t underestimate internal costs of program design and administration

Conferences & Workshops


Easy way to allow a leader to learn beyond the company, especially younger leaders

Networking with other companies and similar roles

Opportunities to speak

Learn about trends

Must create accountability for sharing knowledge for a good ROI

Lack of follow through is typical

Be judicious about who to send to which conferences and set expectations for participation

Easy wins with right application

Good for high potentials, especially when local

Easy to administer

Create a policy and guidelines


High-Potential Program


Builds bench strength for longer term growth

Supports succession planning

Allows networking among other high-potential participants

Can pair younger leaders with more seasoned leaders as part of program

Need to ensure company leadership team supports it and is willing to participate and invest

Start small and experiment to a larger audience

Ensure a clear program owner and clarify roles and responsibilities

Ensure program credibility and attention

Create roadmap

Must be highly interactive and have a variety of program components

Must be seen as valued

Metrics lie in readiness for more senior level positions

Leader Wisdom Sessions or Business Wisdom


Business based topic that supports company strategy, usually 90 min to 2 hours about a specific topic of expertise or knowledge

Can reach a wider audience of leaders

Great way to connect senior leaders with others

Opportunity to stretch leaders through presenting topics of choice

Based in the business

Requires internal structure to administer

Senior leaders and commitment of time

Companies woefully underestimate their own time requirements & commitments


Don’t fall prey to the internal costs – less intensive that other development regarding time and money

Partner with business leaders to help them be successful

There are many formats these sessions can be delivered

Stretch Projects


Great opportunity for and individual or a team to take on a key initiative for the Company. 

Usually linked to high potential programs

Great learning experience while making a significant contribution to the company and gaining visibility of Senior Leaders

Pushes leaders to build stronger team skills and meeting discipline

Requires internal structure to administer which is why it’s usually connected to a Hi-Potential program

Requires a senior leader(s) to sponsor the project and commit time adequately

Requires some accountability and follow through

Requires a good solid program structure of identifying an action learning project, facilitation of early team creation and metrics and accountability for results

Key issue is sponsor(s) time and commitment



Good way for managers to meet each other

Inexpensive alternative

Good for new hires or newly promoted managers

Buddy system can be a way to get to know peers

Can do internal “conference-like” forums to bring leaders together

Must be structured with outcomes to be successful as a learning modality

Some will question the value

Must have a long term program concept

Conference forums have costs with time and money

Many companies do day long “sessions” on technology, hackathons, innovation labs, etc

Must be well advertised

Quality is important for participation

E-Learning (on-demand)


Timely and self-paced access to management topics

Excellent for updates or tutorials (e.g. perf review reminders)

Good for compliance training

Excellent addition to classroom training

Interactive display increases retention

Can put links to relevant forms or additional intranet information

Once created, only minor updates needed

Off-the-shelf modules available

No debrief of materials with others

Must use IT or outsourced firm to build content so there are initial costs

Do not recommend for leadership skill building and practice as a replacement for live classroom training

Lacks networking and learning from others

Is an excellent method for refreshers, reminders and follow on post classroom training


A good addition for some topics

Off-the-shelf content is good for compliance

Can purchase modules for any topic…balance learning content with the need to build relationships

Make sure online content is interactive and has opportunities to test knowledge

Classroom Training Pros and Cons




Costs & Comments

Instructor-Led learning

Leadership training


Can be tailored to company culture, values, messages

Most widely used for skill building and practice

Managers can learn from each other

A side benefit of creating management cohorts or communities

Can involve senior leaders as speakers

Internal resources often strapped for time and expertise

Outsourcing training can get expensive depending on quantity of leaders

Company must look at development as an investment – long term

Cost to build customized content

Off the shelf programs require a train-the-trainer or licensing/ongoing fees

Many off-the-shelf programs require 1-2 days versus customizing content in shorter modules

Management training is essential for growth and development

Augment with other delivery methods

Must be willing to invest in people and leadership development

Benefit to partner with an external firm whose expertise provides current trends and development practices

Academic courses/classes


Excellent for executive level

Can send each executive to a specialized institute

Quick immersion in relevant topics (1-2 weeks) – boot camps

Many universities now offering long term leadership development programs to the public

Builds external leadership network

Latest research often included

Easy to administer

Can often participate in a local university program

Excellent for global companies


Program costs expensive

Must have guidelines and policies for who participates and expectations for teaching others

Should have some transfer of knowledge or ROI for participation

Executive programs typically run $10-25,000 pp

Important to connect the right executive with the right program for commitment

Must build in budgets

Learning Communities


Excellent as a post training forum

Great way to involve directors to VPs in leading small group

Small groups allow for case study, practice, peer learning on a specific topic of interest

Managers can self select which communities they are interested in joining

Can be run as often as desired (e.g. monthly, quarterly)

Must have an entire plan for implementation

Requires facilitator’s guide for agenda topics and engagement

Senior leader commitment

Can backfire if led poorly

Will require HR Business Partner involvement to ensure program credibility

Easy to pilot and evaluate effectiveness without huge program costs

Can start small and experiment

Can be run internally through volunteers interested in the topics

Small program costs but requires investment in time and resources to be successful at the start

Click here to download a pdf version of this post: How To Put Together An Effective Leadership Development Program.

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