Emerging Leader Programs What Does Best Practice Look Like?

Emerging Leader Programs Best Practice

The entire HFL consultancy team recently met to review a range of Emerging Leader Programs (ELPs) we ran for clients in the last few years. This opportunity gave us the chance to review current methodology and capture suggested improvements. We emerged, reports Alistair Gordon, with some fundamental best practice rules.


There are many ways to skin a cat, and many more ways to run an emerging leader program. But interestingly enough, when you gather a group of experienced ELP consultants in a room for a day – you’ll find very significant agreement on the ten or so things that are crucial to the success of a best practice ELP program.


1. The ELP has got to be business driven

When designing ELP’s it is absolutely essential that one asks the questions “What leaders will the business need in the future? What precise challenges are they likely to face, and what skills and experiences will prepare them for these challenges?” Always start with the end in mind. If you don’t—you greatly risk the chance of producing graduates that the business really needs, or getting the internal traction for the program, that it truly deserves. It is important to remember: Quality input leads to quality design, and quality design leads to quality outputs: emerging leaders capable of producing outstanding business results.


2. The ELP objective must focus on sustainable behaviour change.

Content and theory is great, but with no practical skill or behavioural development, the program won’t be effective. The entire focus for the design of ELP’s must be to drive behaviours that produce outstanding leadership in this business in the future.


3. An ELP is all about acceleration.

The objective of an ELP should be accelerated readiness. For this reason, the program must be specifically designed for each particular organisation. If pre-existing programs run using recycled material, the program is unlikely to achieve its objective i.e. producing leaders who are ready to lead that organisation in the future. Therefore, programs must be craftily designed – they must be challenging, able to deliver results, and must infuse aspirational ideals within the business.


4. An ELP needs to start with insight and self-awareness.

The evidence is conclusive –assessment activities that allow participants to understand where they are currently “at” and where they need to be in the future, are critical for ensuring the engagement of participants, and their commitment to their learning journey. At HFL, we advise that at least part of this assessment should include a role play “stretch. We usually do this by designing a one day Development Centre that demonstrates to ELP participants what a day in the corner office actually looks and feels like.


5. ELPs are joint efforts.

There are two people who are “on” the ELP program – the participant, and their manager. If the manager is not actively involved in holding the participant accountable, does not know what is being covered and when, and isn’t involved in activities – the manager won’t be committed to the program. That’s not a place any of us want to be!


6. The ELP puts every participant in the blender.

Blended learning is essential. Off-site workshops should be a small part of the journey; coaching and mentoring a larger part. Action projects are in fact, an integral part of ELP’s. They enable participants to put skills and models into action. Importantly however, all of these activities must be part of a connected journey – not an unrelated series of learning events.

Be sure to remember, the most emphasis should be on experiential learning.


7. The ELP must contain simulations that feel real.

Simulation exercises need to be frequently used, and custom-designed to ensure that participants feel they are learning from situations that are relevant, and likely to occur within their environment. It is important to ensure that all learning is grounded in their specific business environment, in order to maximise learning, and enable participants to present back relevant deliverables to their teams.


8. The ELP must incorporate real business systems.

The ELP should never just cover the general principles of a performance management system. It should cover precise principles behind an organisation’s performance management system, and align with policy regarding when and how it should be used. In all instances, simulations should use real forms from the business.


9. Senior leaders must be visibly involved in the program.

There are many ways in involve senior leaders (opening speeches, sharing their own leadership journeys, participating as mentors in action projects, sitting on presentation panels etc). Whatever way is chosen, it is imperative that this involvement delivers high value/high motivation for ELP participants. Furthermore, it must be realised that the importance of the ELP is demonstrated to the entire business, through senior leaders taking active involvement.


10. The ELP participants must be the right participants.

One must apply careful consideration to the ELP selection process i.e. who is going to participate, who is not, and why. This is a critical factor to ensuring that the participant group will learn together in an accelerated fashion. Recalcitrant participants on the program (there because of seniority) can quickly derail positive dynamics in the group. For this reason, L&D need to be really firm with senior business managers about a key principle – “if in doubt, leave them out”. A begrudging, negative attitude toward the program will hinder participant growth, and foster a reluctant attitude within others. Essentially, participants need to earn the right to participate in an ELP.


11. The ELP communication strategy must be all-encompassing.

ELPs must be visible to almost everyone in the business in some way or another. This means that information and key messages about the program must be easily accessible to people, whether or not they are directly involved. Open communication enhances the standing of the program, restricts the chance that detractors may damage the kudos of the program, and sets future participation in the program as a motivational goal for many emerging leaders.


12. The ELP must integrate with individual development plans.

The ELP should not be an activity set apart from the usual performance and development monitoring processes that participants are involved with. It should function as an essential part of these processes. Ideally, managers ought to be comprehensively briefed on how to constantly monitor and discuss each participant’s progress throughout the ELP.


13. ELP participants must commit to change.

Participants must be encouraged – or even mandated – to take responsibility and public accountability for their personal development. It is important to make sure there are consequences for those who are not developing or are not fulfilling their obligations under the program. If this doesn’t occur – the participant will fail to grow and prosper, and the ELP will be viewed as a waste of time.


14. The impact (or otherwise) of the ELP must be measured.

Because the ELP requires large investment (in time, effort and money), the program must be measured on a constant basis. Questions should be asked: Is it producing the sustainable behavioural change promised at the beginning of the program. If not, why not? Are the leadership skills and behaviours determined at the beginning of the program still relevant?


It is important to remember – participants and managers involved in the program must know they are being measured, and they must be held accountable for results (along with, gulp, the consultants executing the program!). This method of accountability ensures that all involved, remain focused on the things that matter most i.e. the outcomes, not the activity.


As a consequence of this “best practice” discussion, HFL has developed a detailed process methodology to ensure we are delivering on these key success factors. Please call us if you would like to hear more about the way in which we execute Emerging Leader Programs, and the accelerated learning process these programs are designed to deliver.


Alistair Gordon is the Managing Director of HFL




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