L&D Best Practices: Strategies for Success (May 2023)

Training magazine taps 2023 Training APEX Awards winners and Training Hall of Famers to provide their learning and development best practices in each issue. Here, we look at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Leading Self Accelerate program and Unite Us’ Manager Roundtable.



Leading Self Accelerate (LSA) is a cohort program designed to help prepare high-potential individual contributors to be competitive for formal leadership opportunities at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was designed and implemented with an intentional inclusive lens for formal leadership positions and to increase the likelihood of individuals building a career within our organization.

Impetus for the Program

Employees in individual contributor roles expressed frustration with being able to apply for and meet requirements for team lead or supervisor roles that required a year of supervisory experience—a classic “chicken or egg” argument in talent. They could not qualify for positions because they didn’t have the experience; they couldn’t get the experience because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements. Competition for talent is at its highest, and we need to show an investment to retain and develop our employees in their career goals. We needed a greater focus on equipping employees with the tools they need to be successful in future roles, not just their current one. We also needed to create and sustain pathways for diverse talent selection, helping entry-level employees move into leadership positions and address barriers inhibiting diversity in progression to formal leadership positions.

Content, Structure, and Evolution

Over eight months, LSA participants complete 40 hours of learning, including facilitated and online learning sessions, assessments, self-study and reflection exercises, competency checks, and peer study groups complemented by a support network for each participant of an executive coach, sponsor, and mentor. Broad leadership topics covered include self-awareness; followership and how to manage up, down, and sideways; managing change and conflict, navigating difficult conversations, and influencing others; and managing priorities and people with different productivity styles. The topics are tied to our leading self (Inclusion, Drive, Professionalism, Emotional Intelligence, Coachability) and leading others (Capacity Building, Knowledge Sharing, Accountability) characteristics. Coaching sessions focus on professional development goals and reflecting on learnings from LSA. Sponsorship sessions focus on future promotional opportunities. Mentoring sessions focus on what it takes to move up to the next level of leadership.

Employees must have completed a core program, participate in the mentoring program, be in good standing in their performance, and have a recommendation from their manager to be eligible for the program. Program completion substitutes for one year of supervisory experience for minimum experience requirements in internal job postings.

Program topics are continually examined to ensure linkage to competencies required for successful performance in formal leadership roles and coverage of relevant current content.

Challenges and Solutions

  • Operationalizing and implementing incentive structure: Program completion equating to one year of supervisory experience was innovative, with the added complexity of implementing this incentive structure in a state-funded environment. Obtaining key stakeholder buy-in and nurturing cross-departmental collaboration helped us successfully offer this incentive. We partnered with recruiting and compensation teams to build consensus on program requirements, what constitutes one year of experience equivalence, and to help prioritize candidates who have participated in the program in our internal selection process.
  • Timing: The program originally was designed for in-person delivery in early 2020, which coincided with the onset of the pandemic. Online modalities were deemed safest to keep this program on track, and, thus, the program rapidly-transitioned to launch in a synchronous virtual environment. Cohesion and adaptability on behalf of the design and implementation team, as well as consistent support from leadership, led to a successful launch in an increasingly tumultuous environment.
  • Awareness: Creating the program was only one piece of providing this opportunity to our employees, albeit a significant piece. Another important aspect that proved challenging was awareness that the program (and corresponding incentive) existed. We needed to raise awareness about the program, incentive, how to participate, and the support needed on behalf of formal leaders. We accomplished this through internal communication announcements and targeted e-mails and incorporating information in outreach presentations across the institution. Information also was added into the requirements section of job postings (i.e., one year of supervisory experience or completion of the LSA program).

Kirkpatrick Level 3 and 4 Results

Some 67 employees have graduated from the first two cohorts, and a third cohort of 37 participants currently is enrolled. The following results have been achieved:

Program-Specific Results: We have measured success among participants in two ways: participant surveys and career progression. At the conclusion of the program, participants are asked how often they apply the leadership behaviors that are taught in the program with the expectation of on-the-job application. The majority of participants respond favorably (i.e., select a 4 “often” or 5 “very often” response) to the following leadership behaviors targeted by the program:

1. Inclusion: Connected or reconnected with someone within your professional network (70 percent favorable responses)

2. Drive: Set the productivity tone for yourself and your team (88 percent favorable responses)

3. Emotional Intelligence: Leveraged awareness of your triggers and adjusted your approach to a conflict situation (91 percent favorable responses)

4. Capacity Building: Been intentional about your leadership and/or followership (97 percent favorable responses)

In terms of career progression, LSA graduates have an 18 percent yearly promotion rate compared to a 10 percent organizational promotion rate.

Holistic Results: More broadly, LSA contributes to both objective outcomes our institution targets as favorable signs of career development, as well as employee survey responses regarding career development. We have worked to maintain high percentages of internal hires for open leadership positions. For example, 83 percent of open leadership positions went to internal candidates during our most recent fiscal year. We also have maintained high favorability in our annual employee-wide engagement survey responses. Employees report high favorability regarding their perceptions of internal promotions (72 percent favorable responses) and opportunities for development (86 percent favorable responses).

Tips and Takeaways

Tips for organizations looking to adopt this type of program fall into three key themes: Development, Implementation, and Sustainment.

1. Development

  • Determine if this type of program addresses your organization’s unique needs. From inception, this program and incentive structure were based on pressing needs in our employee workforce that tied directly to return on investment.
  • Get key stakeholders on board—senior leadership, design and facilitation team, recruitment, and compensation.
  • Determine leadership competencies required for formal leadership roles currently and anticipate future competencies.
  • Develop equitable, attainable, standardized program participation eligibility and selection criteria, and stick to them—no exceptions.

2. Implementation

  • Develop a communication plan to disseminate program information, impetus, benefits, and requirements for participants and managers.
  • Follow up to ensure managers are providing necessary support to program participants.

3. Sustainment

  • Continually assess program structure and content and adapt to meet changing leadership requirements and organizational needs.
  • Systematically evaluate program effectiveness at regular intervals to ensure it meets intended needs, including the linkage of other organizational outcomes such as employee performance.



Recent data from Gallup shows that strengths-based development results in a 9 to 15 percent increase in engaged employees. It also contributes to 14 to 29 percent of the rise in profits for organizations. Learning and development (L&D), rooted in a strengths-based approach, can help employees enhance their current strengths and discover new ones.

At United Us, (https://uniteus.com), the Learning and Development team is passionate and dedicated to improving the skill sets and overall effectiveness of all Unite Us team members. The L&D team envisioned a program that would grow and improve people managers and provide an interactive learning experience that allows them to gather, collaborate, and connect in a virtual environment.

Challenges and Opportunities

The company grew rapidly, with a 200 percent increase in the overall workforce during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, promotions were frequent, which meant implementing a training program to meet people where they were in their professional careers and provide the necessary tools to become effective people managers. Unite Us’ growth presented a challenge and a unique opportunity for the two-person L&D team to identify what the training and development curriculum would look like as the organization adopted a hybrid workforce across 40 states. Some of the challenges the L&D team identified were:

  • How to have effective one-on-one meetings with direct reports
  • How to give effective feedback in a remote environment
  • How to work from home during COVID-19 with school-aged children

Once the L&D team identified and understood the problems, they developed a sustainable solution that would create a lasting impact across the organization: The Manager’s Roundtable was born.

Program Details

The Manager’s Roundtable program was designed to empower team members to grow people management skills, strengthen and develop leaders, and share best practices that drive performance and improve talent management strategies. One of the essential elements of the Manager’s Roundtable is identifying any knowledge or skill gaps within the workforce, so team leaders can build effective and engaged teams through communication, feedback, and coaching.

The hybrid program is hosted monthly and creates support for managers through people-focused leadership, inclusive management best practices, and delegation. Focused on meeting the needs of an ever-evolving workforce, with the diversity of thought, representation, and ability as our inspiration, the Learning and Development team chose a synchronous, virtual, instructor-led training approach that combines interactivity with opportunities for practical application.

Our team collectively wanted to design a program that was beneficial to the overall workforce that would enhance employee performance and productivity, reduce turnover, and improve company culture. The curriculum has three elements:

  1. Provide foundational knowledge
  2. Create opportunities to practice application
  3. Encourage peer-to-peer learning to improve people management and communication

To ensure participation and accountability, the L&D team requires all people managers to participate in at least six roundtables annually.

Results: Continued Learning in the Workplace

Professional learning is constantly evolving. Attending a single event doesn’t create long-term behavioral change or drive workplace performance; effective workplace learning is as much about the journey as the destination. In the spirit of creating a journey that allows managers to take ownership of their learning, the L&D team created a robust library of self-paced courses and resources accessible through Unite Us University, Unite Us’ internal learning management system. Additionally, the L&D team leverages an internal communication platform to host a People Manager Community of Practice, where managers can ask the hard questions and source solutions in real time.

A recent biannual survey measured the results of the Manager’s Roundtable program, which ties directly to Unite Us’ organizational goal of developing great managers. The results, from October 2021 to April 2022, reflect a six-point increase in the management theme scores, demonstrating that the Manager Roundtable series has proven effective as a best practice in creating a culture of learning for all levels of the Unite Us team.

Tips and Takeaways

1. Begin with the end in mind. Establish goals and measurements for success. Develop great managers who can promote a positive and productive work environment where employees feel like they can do their best work and contribute to the overall company’s success. By visualizing your desired results, you can evolve to ensure the program’s success.

2. Leverage existing resources. Evaluate your current assets and use what you have available to build and implement your program.

3. Collaborate with others. Work with your internal stakeholders to build a learner-informed program. A collaborative approach ensures relevance, buyin, and impact.

4. Evaluate. Assess content, delivery, and outcomes. Leverage the data to continually enhance, improve, and expand programming.

5. Be flexible. The needs of your stakeholders will change based on business needs. Be open and ready to make adjustments that center learners.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine, owned by Lakewood Media Group. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.