How to Develop a Leadership Preparation Program

Want to grow a better crop of leaders? Start by selecting the right seeds, watering the garden, removing the weeds and in a season or two, you’ll have a bumper crop of ready- to- harvest leaders.

Companies that excel in leadership development identify and begin to prepare leaders well before their first promotion into a management role. The primary benefits of a “pre-leadership” program, or leadership preparation program, are:

1. Shorter learning curves for newly promoted managers

2. Improved opportunities to assess high potential management candidates; which leads to better selection

3. Better career choices – which leads to improved satisfaction and job fit

4. Improved ability to recruit employees that are looking for leadership development opportunities

Although every organization’s needs many be different, the following generic program design that should work in most cases.

1. Determine program objectives
Be very clear about what problem you are trying to solve. Do you anticipate a wave of upcoming retirements or organizational growth that could create demand for new managers? Are high potential employees unwilling to consider management promotions due to negative perceptions? Are you experiencing a high failure rate for new managers? If you don’t have a good reason, then don’t do the program.

2. Determine program focus
Will the program be to assess candidates, to develop them, career exploration, or some combination? All are possible, just be transparent about it. Don’t tell candidates the program is all about career exploration, and then secretly use the program as a way to test their readiness.

3. Candidate nomination and selection
Managers could nominate candidates, or you could open up the selection process to anyone who is interested. The benefits of the later approach is that it casts a wider net for potential managers and creates a perception of equal opportunity and fairness. The first approach benefits a handful of employees; the second benefits all employees, even the ones who don’t apply.
For either approach, you’ll need clear nomination and selection criteria. Candidates could fill out an application or write an essay that describes why they are interested in leadership and why they are qualified. Managers can then make final selections based on criteria like tenure, performance, and leadership potential criteria.
Final selections could be capped, based on projected opportunities and resource constraints. For example, if you are anticipating 10 openings in the next 1-2 years, use about a 3 to 1 ratio and cap your program at 30.

4. Participant notification and preparation
The participant’s managers should be notified first, then given instructions how to notify, congratulate, and prepare the candidates. All too often, managers derail the process if they are not properly involved in supporting the program. Candidates show up with no clue as to why they were selected and with inadequate preparation, turning what should have been a motivating and rewarding experience into a potential embarrassment.

5. Program Elements
The actual development program can take many shapes. One approach is to bring all candidates to a central location and conduct a formal 2-3 day workshop, facilitated by trainers or managers. Activities can include:
– Pre-work assignments, i.e., manager interviews, readings, and reflection exercises
– “Day-in-the-life” manager panels
– Simulations
– Interest, style, or motivation assessments
– Training on different aspects of leadership & management
– Role plays
– Case studies
– Journaling
Individual development planning.
Company specific issues such as relocation policy, management compensation, and HR policies could be addressed as well. It all depends on what your primary program focus is: career exploration, assessment, or development.
Effective programs can also be run in a distributed way, using online modules and manager facilitated activities and discussions. This allows for greater participation with no travel costs. For a distributed program, the manager is the primary facilitator and would need detailed instructions. For larger locations with multiple candidates, there may be opportunities for group work as well.

6. Post program follow-up
A pre-leadership program should be a process, not an event. Candidates should be given time and a chance to revisit their interest in leadership. A “not now” does not mean “never”. Actually, having someone decide they don’t want to be a leader is a huge win-win for the individual and company. Those candidates that are still interested and had a positive assessment (if assessment was part of the program focus) should be provided with follow-up developmental activities to help prepare them for potential opportunities. These activities could include:
– Participation in selection interviews
– Running meetings
– Team leadership opportunities
– Additional reading and training
– Training new employees
– Peer coaching
– Mentoring
– A subscription to Great Leadership. (-:
Some companies, especially in Europe, even use a process that “certifies” candidates as ready for promotion.

Organizations that use these kinds of programs end up making better management selection decisions with a greater degree of confidence. Open positions are filled faster, and new managers can assimilate quicker into their new roles. Having these programs in place sends a strong message to potential and current employees about how much the organization values employee development.