A Leadership Development Program that Thrives

Establishing staff development as a high priority relies on interaction, tenacity, and an enthusiastic executive-level champion.

By David A. Mollish, MBA, CHRO, and Diane B. Landers, Ph.D., VP/CMO, GAI Consultants

In today’s turbulent economy, a genuine investment in the excellence of an organization’s people can generate a competitive advantage for the future. The evident benefits of a continuous Leadership Development Program (LDP) are three-fold.

  1.  A sustainable investment in the company’s future is established.
  2.  Leadership potential is recognized early in an employee’s career.
  3.  Learning, leadership, and loyalty become intrinsic values, corporate-wide.

When SWOT analysis at GAI Consultants concluded that we lacked the leadership development and succession planning necessary to sustain future growth, it was a wake-up call to institute an intentional, sustaining commitment to the staff, the company, and our future.

Establishing staff development as a high priority relies on interaction, tenacity, and an enthusiastic executive-level champion who can enlist support and commitment at all levels. Tasked with a board initiative to develop a Leadership Program at GAI, co-author and GAI board member Diane Landers coordinated a Leadership Committee comprising members from each office and region in 2005. GAI recently had hired co-author David Mollish, a new CHRO with leadership development experience who had developed and administered leadership programs for a Fortune 500 firm. We launched the corporate LDP in less than a year. Leadership courses for all levels were developed as pilot programs.

We began with “Leaders to Watch”—an annual endeavor to identify and applaud our top emerging leaders. Other learning steppingstones include Client-First Training in customer service, Project Management and Advanced Project Management Courses, Risk and Ethic Management Sessions, First-Time Supervisor Educational Series, and High-Performance Management for personal leadership development.

Recognizing that our engineering and technical leaders also need to be business leaders, CEO Gary DeJidas partnered with a local university to initiate a unique on-site MBA curriculum whereby university professors teach weekly classes at the Pittsburgh office that are relayed to regional offices via video conferencing. Fourteen of our top management graduated from our first internal MBA study program; 14 more now are enrolled in the second class.

Here is our approach to developing, implementing, and sustaining a robust leadership program:

Overcome Resistance to Change. Establishing staff development as the heart of an organizational culture relies on interaction, tenacity, and an enthusiastic executive-level champion who can enlist support and commitment at all levels. Instituting a top-level Executive Leadership Council, for example, can encourage serious buy-in for training because executive managers are actively involved in selecting candidates and are the first to appreciate the benefits of a better-trained staff.

Financial Allocation. Human Resources (or a separate corporate budget) should be responsible for your leadership training budget, which should include all expenditures: labor, travel, trainers, consultants, educational materials, incidentals, etc. When negotiating with your CEO/CFO, a little skill and finesse can be persuasive; due diligence is required. For instance, demonstratehow your leadership development funds will better serve corporate commitment to future growth than current expenditures on ineffective piecemeal training.

Jump-Start Your Program. Leadership articles and online modules by high-caliber learning systems such as Harvard Business Publishing, Development Dimensions International, and Dale Carnegie can be researched and selectively purchased for group training sessions in leadership and management.

Engage Top Management. Invite executives and senior managers to provide opening remarks at kick-off sessions of leadership management courses. Their emphasis on the relationship of coursework to corporate investment in the future of the employees and the company encourages participation and dedication. Some managers and executives are especially adept and enthusiastic about assisting with teaching activities, further reinforcing leadership training as a corporate culture and creating a demand for enrollment.

Acknowledge Graduates. Make sure “graduates” receive exposure and recognition. Send a company-wide announcement with their photos, celebrating them as the crème de la crème for future leadership positions with special plaques, dinner parties, and professional group photos for publication and/or office display. Provide a special gift and a certificate to signify their career achievement. Kudos and rewards should vary with each completed class. At every GAI office, we have a “Wall of Fame” showcasing photographs of each graduating class.

Generate a Feeling of Community. Invite honorees and their spouses, along with company executives, officers, and senior managers, to a special dinner or activity. Whatever the occasion, honorees have the opportunity for casual interaction with executives and top managers—an opportunity that can build corporate trust and establish lasting associations.

Engage and Motivate. Everything related to the training must be first class, down to the smallest detail—from your delivery to the tablecloths, pitchers of water, prizes, catered hot lunches, dinners and entertainment, professionally designed and framed certificates, the graduation process, and the handshake. Complement lectures with training that is engaging and fun: Hold team and individual competitions; produce educational videos and discuss; conduct mock real-life scenarios, role-play—active and involved attendees feel engaged and motivated to learn.

Consistently Deliver. Establish an annual training plan, without exception, and stick to it, for a consistent first-class delivery. It is difficult to conceptualize the countless number of preparation hours required. Start weeks before the scheduled training to confirm you are organized and have all the props ready to go. Annual follow-through and delivery generates an immense sense of accomplishment and commitment.

Career Advancement. We are advocates for leadership development graduates during the merit increase process. Over the last few years, “Leaders to Watch” graduates have filled some key positions—94 percent of our graduates have been promoted since completing the program. Human Resources tracks each participant’s progress, and managers are notified of their level of involvement in leadership training.

Link Succession Planning to Leadership Development. Establish an annual succession planning process for identifying, in advance, the “heir to the throne” for key positions. Identify future leaders early, understand their strengths and weaknesses, prepare and develop them to assume the leadership roles of the future.

Make a leadership development program part of your organizational culture—the return on investment is invaluable.

Diane Landers and Dave Mollish launched the Leadership Development Program for GAI Consultants, an environmental and engineering firm of 800-plus employees. For more information, call them at 412.476.2000.


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