Employee Development

What’s missing from your leadership development plan?

leadership development plan

Most executives want to create a leadership development plan to ensure that the employees of today are growing into the leaders of tomorrow.

In fact, 83% of businesses said it’s important to develop leaders at all levels, according to a report from Zippia.

But there’s a problem: The same report found that fewer than 5% of business leaders follow through with implementing a leadership development plan.

Daniel Stewart, president of Stewart Leadership, has seen this lack of follow-through in action as an executive coach. “There are good intentions to create something sustainable,” Stewart says. “But often, people get impatient, or else excited about the latest thing.”

This impatience makes sense, says Dr. Rick Eigenbrod, a clinical psychologist turned executive coach, as true development is extremely uncomfortable.

When coaching CEOs on creating a leadership development plan, Eigenbrod notices that many confuse learning for development. But the core of each is different — and development is far scarier.

“Learning is about what I know, development is about who I am,” Eigenbrod says. “Learning changes what I know, development changes who I am. When it comes to development, we’re never done. It’s going to push me up against my boundaries as a human, which unleashes anxiety. Anxiety is my organism’s response to any threat to my status quo.”

Unfortunately, most plans fizzle out before potential leaders can test their boundaries, feel that anxiety, and grow beyond the status quo.

Here are a few common areas where leadership development plans fall short and how executives can fix them.


1. Strategy determines the direction

Organizations that want to grow their stable of leaders must first start by understanding their own strategy, Stewart says.

“Leadership development always needs to be focused on the strategy of the organization, what skills are needed to achieve it, and what level of confidence the organization has in its current crop of leaders,” Stewart says.

For example, if a company’s strategy is based on creating customer intimacy, Stewart says that leaders need skills beyond customer service. They must know how to effectively build relationships, how to collaborate, and — perhaps most importantly — how to treat employees the same as they treat customers. “Because that will then bleed over,” he says.

Once executives have identified the company’s strategy, they can identify ways to develop traits that can meet that strategy in the next generation of leaders.

2. Plans need to move beyond training

Most often, Stewart says, organizations plan some form of event-based approach as the hallmark of their leadership development plan. This means training seminars, classwork, or educational software.

But there’s a problem with event-based training, according to Stewart. Organizations often don’t follow up with the training beyond the first week. In most cases, employees forget what they’ve learned and never put it to work. It’s as though the training has never happened.

“You need some tailored plan of action for each person,” Stewart says. “And there needs to be a regular conversation with bosses.”

These conversations — coaching and mentoring — must be offered as part of a leadership development plan. If employees aren’t sure of management’s perspective on the training they received, how can they be expected to carry it forward?

Eigenbrod says that these conversations can’t simply be a one-way exchange. Leaders must be willing to hear feedback, even criticism, from their budding leaders.

Stewart says that there should also be a feedback system that allows employees to talk about successes and failures of the training and how it’s being used at all levels.

“And this needs to go run longer than a day or two,” Stewart says. “Usually, three-to-six months helps develop and sustain that behavior.”

3. Plans must be specific

Action plans for leadership development can’t be vague, Stewart says. They must be specific regarding dates, results, and rewards. For this to happen, the entire organization must be on the same page regarding how success is measured.

Everyone, from entry-level workers to the CEO, should be able to able to answer a simple question: What does success look like for the organization?

“I will often say all leadership development is about creating awareness and translating that awareness into action,” Stewart says.

4. Executives must climb aboard

A big trap of leadership development is when an executive wants to implement a growth plan for everyone but themselves.

This is shockingly common, says Stewart, who said that it’s much harder to get executives to buy into a leadership development plan for themselves.

“Because they’re the people in charge,” he says. “So they say, ‘Why do I have to change?’”

5. Executives have to develop themselves

Eigenbrod understands why leaders fight personal change. “Development sucks,” he says with a laugh.

But Eigenbrod can’t picture where his career would be without moments of development. Sometimes, while speaking to a Vistage group, Eigenbrod will step back and feel amazed at his own development. He’s not the same man now as he was years back, and that’s come through years of successes, failures, and everything in between. They’ve all made him into who he is now, something he wouldn’t trade for the world.

This is the heart of development, he says, and it highlights why development is so uncomfortable for executives. Humans fear change and cling to the status quo, something that makes even more sense once someone has reached a position of success and power.

The problem with this is simple, Eigenbrod says: The boundaries of a leader are the boundaries of an organization. Leaders who don’t grow hurt the growth and effectiveness of their employees. Thus, he believes that the development of the human being as a whole — especially an executive — is a business issue.

“When we believe we’re finished developing, that’s not good for anybody around us,” Eigenbrod says.

Eigenbrod cites work by the Center for Creative Leadership, which found that most leaders said that their greatest leadership lessons came amid life’s hardest moments. These are moments when leaders knew that the stakes were high, Eigenbrod says, when they felt anxious, uncomfortable, and weren’t sure if they could make a difference.

“People who can learn the lessons of development in the crucible will keep rising up the ladder,” Eigenbrod says. “And people who can’t—they get defensive, they avoid the moment, they escape their careers—will derail themselves.”

6. What’s the plan?

Knowing that leadership development will create discomfort and anxiety, a sustained plan becomes essential. Stewart suggests putting the 70-20-10 model for learning and development into play.

Leadership development plans that follow the 70-20-10 model will guide employees toward how to use their time as such:

  • 10% of leadership development will come from training, including seminars, and group sessions. (A note from Stewart: This is typically 100% of the average leadership development plan, a disaster for development.)
  • 20% must involve coaching and mentoring. Employees can be part of coaching groups or have regular and personalized meetings with managers, while executives should seek executive coaching or a peer advisory group.
  • 70% of leadership development is applying what was learned while on the job. This is the crucible that Eigenbrod mentioned, those moments when budding leaders put their skills and knowledge to the test.

Having a solid action plan helps people focus on what’s important each day, Stewart says. A plan allows them an overview of where they’re comfortable versus uncomfortable, allowing them to seek areas of growth and find ways to develop on the job.

“An action plan can help them think about what questions they might ask, how they have one-on-ones with our direct reports, how they show up with their boss, and how aligned they are with the organization,” Stewart says. “It’s far easier to accept a plan when you know why you’re getting it and what to do.”

7. Using leadership to mature as a human

To be the best possible leader, Eigenbrod says that executives must work at climbing Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development.

Leaders who climb to the highest levels of development have a better relationship with themselves, which changes how they relate to other people. This typically leads to better relationship dynamics, an evolution of the business structure, and leaders who are more willing to deal with discomfort amid tough moments.

Eigenbrod cites work from Robert Anderson, CEO and Founder of the Leadership Circle, who has found that leaders climbing Kegan’s stages of development tend to lead successful companies.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Eigenbrod says that developed leaders are also better followers, something he believes is one of the most underrated traits of a good leader. If a leader can model being a good follower, other employees are far more likely to be both better leaders and better followers.

“The ability of a leader to be a follower when necessary is critical,” Eigenbrod says. “We’re moving away from a world where being the smartest kid in the room is all we need.”

What happens when there’s no plan?

What’s the difference between a company that has a leadership development plan versus a company that doesn’t have one?

“Well, if you believe the research, one will thrive and one won’t,” Eigenbrod says.

This also rings true for Stewart, who says he has noticed a direct correlation between organizations that have created leadership development plans and those with positive, engaging cultures.

And engaging cultures have become especially important to the next generation of employees, Stewart says. They want a workplace where they will be coached, developed, and engaged as humans. And if this next generation of talent can’t find these attributes in one organization, they’ll look for them elsewhere.

“For them, this is not optional,” Stewart says. “High-performing organizations inevitably have leadership development solutions in place — people entering the workforce expect it.”


Related Resources

5 strategies for an effective leadership development plan

Leadership development areas most CEOs tend to overlook

Category: Employee Development

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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