The Bottom Line on Leadership

Leadership development is a priority for most organizations, but many overlook determining if it really works. Now is the time to start assessing the effectiveness of these programs.

By Margery Weinstein

Any organization with a comprehensive training program has a leadership development curriculum. These programs include everything from conventional classroom learning with guest speakers to high-tech simulations and lavish retreats. There also may be mentorship thrown in, as well as multiple job rotations. Despite the well-rounded curricula, many companies don’t do enough to determine whether any of it is working. With budgets still tight in an uncertain economy, companies need to ramp up their efforts to better assess their leadership coursework.

Effective leadership development takes both program relevance and personal drive, notes Lisa Cummings, vice president of products, Corporate Visions. “First, the program has to be relevant to today’s work and today’s employees. If there is no chance for employees to apply new skills in the current role, then the program represents merely a motivational speech.” Second, Cummings says, “both parties need to have the determination and drive to make change happen. This urgency is important because significant opportunities lie outside of the world of indecision, otherwise known as ‘the status quo.’ Neuroscience teaches us that people need to believe their world is changing fast, and they must do something different today in order to be successful tomorrow. Without this sense of urgency for change, implementations get low commitment from managers or the people being developed.”

When it comes to measuring success, a 90-day post-class or program business impact assessment is the most effective way to assess learning as opposed to, say, standard evaluation sheets, according to Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer, Corporate Visions. “While evaluation sheets are still helpful and satisfy some of the needs of the training department, they do not satisfy senior executives who are looking for definite business impact and results based on the metrics they care about most.”


At PNC Financial Services Group, Inc., leadership development is only considered a success with evidence and job performance to back up the investment. “A successful leadership development approach flourishes in an environment where there is alignment with the belief that the organization’s success is driven by engaging and developing talent,” says Chief Learning Officer Robin Connolly. “Data is derived from a talent assessment process that analyzes the organization’s leaders and subsequently informs a wide variety of integrated leadership development programs including, but not limited to, training.” Connolly also notes the importance of leadership development that is in synch with the rest of the organization, aligning with “business priorities and culture and clearly articulating what leadership means within an organization.”

Connolly says PNC talent development consultants collect data derived from an analysis of and dialogue with PNC’s lines of business. “The goal is to understand and support these business’ current leadership bench, talent gaps, and how the development of leadership will positively influence business results,” she says.

Evaluation of PNC’s leadership development is a multi-layered approach in which success indicators are expected and seen in both the short and long term. “Talent assessments help create baselines, as well as track growth over time,” Connolly explains. “Equally telling indicators include engagement, promotion, and retention metrics.” PNC’s Dynamic Leadership program, a leadership experience targeting senior leaders, measures both the development of specific leader-participants and how their growth is translating into real-time business results. “Ownership of developing talent, another success indicator, is a priority and business imperative at PNC,” says Connolly. “Talent development is seen as everyone’s job: the organization, the manager, and the employee.”

Kirkpatrick’s Level 1 evaluation (leader-participant reaction) is seen at PNC as a best practice and is used for all of the company’s training. The belief that self-awareness supports self-management and the ability to positively influence others and the business is key to the company’s approach to training. “This awareness and the understanding and capacity to self-regulate comprise the knowledge we commonly measure (Level 2: leader-participant learning/understanding),” Connolly notes. “Almost all leadership development programming engages an assessment or similar mechanism that raises the leader-participant’s understanding as to how he or she affects others and business results.” Connolly says this assessment typically takes place at the group level or with a leadership coach—both equally effective, she says, in providing the leader-participant with additional feedback to further deepen self-awareness.

PNC’s 360-degree Enterprise Competency Assessment is the company’s tool of choice to measure and track leadership capability and impact over time (Level 3: leader-participant behavior.) “Talent assessments completed at the line-of-business level,” says Connolly, “provide the company with Level 4 data as to the impact of leadership awareness and behavior on business results, along with other large-scale measurement.”

Relevant and Valuable

At Verizon, leadership development is taken out of the abstract and made applicable to everyday work. “Leadership development programs that work directly align with your business goals and priorities, making them relevant and valuable to the participants,” says Vice President of Workforce Development, Verizon Wireless, Lou Tedrick. “Additionally, they work when the leaders of the participating leaders reinforce and support the programs—ideally before the experience and, at a minimum, after the experience. What doesn’t work is rolling out a program for the sake of rolling out a program…the ‘if we build it, they will come’ philosophy.”

Verizon is a big believer in the “leaders teaching leaders” philosophy. In 2011, the company launched “Leading for Shareholder Value,” a program focused on developing financial acumen, strategic thinking, and increasing cross-business-unit collaboration to drive business results. In 2012, Verizon is designing a similar program for its director-level leaders with “Cascade Kits” to reinforce messages deep within the organization. “Together, these programs are resulting in the critical skills and required mindset that will transform the way we do business and drive shareholder value,” says Director, Leadership Development, Verizon, Amy Hirsch.

When designing leadership development programs, Verizon always tries to identify upfront what it expects to be different as a result of these programs, Tedrick explains. “Do we expect behaviors to change and/or do we expect certain HR and/or business metrics to shift?” is a typical Verizon leadership curriculum question. In the company’s front-line leader and mid-manager high-potential leadership development programs, the company has tracked participant promotions, developmental moves, turnover rates, and performance ratings and compared them with non-participating peers. “Over the years, we’ve seen a positive correlation between program participants and these HR metrics,” says Tedrick. “We know there are other informal development strategies being deployed as well, so we would not say the formal development programs ‘cause’ the positive results, but rather ‘support and contribute’ to these results.”

Pre- and Post-Follow-Up

ResMed recently revamped its leadership development by making it “a more holistic program that involves managers and has pre-work and follow-up to ensure participants have a constant reminder to use the newly gained information back on the job,” says Manager of Achieve Global Projects Treasure Addis-Mills. The company counts the involvement of managers in discussions and having managers commit to action plans as keys to success. “We also create a common thread throughout all the courses we offer, so that it continuously builds from one course to another,” Addis-Mills points out. “It’s not like what is learned in one course just stands on its own, but it ties into the next course and the next.”

ResMed ties metrics on program success into the design of leadership programs. “We try to focus on hard data,” says Addis-Mills. “One of the main goals of the program is to retain top talent, so we use retention data to demonstrate how our program keeps people in the company,” she says. “We also look at how many people within the program have received promotions. In addition, we have looked at reduced sick leave rates, satisfaction surveys, and before and after 360-degree feedback reports to show the impact the program had.”

On the final day of leadership development programming, ResMed gives participants a review activity to complete. The company also gives learners talking points on the course to take back and share with their manager and teams, “so in essence,” says Addis-Mills, “they are teaching back what they learned.”

ResMed also has participants fill out and send in action plans, so they review the information again while showing how they plan to use what they learned to improve the company. “It’s more about whether they can put the learned concepts into action back on the job,” says Addis-Mills, “rather than knowing they can regurgitate the key points. We need to make sure it is practical and that they actually can use the new information and tools.”

Quick Tips

From 2012 Training Top 125 winners PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.; Verizon; and ResMed:

  • Back up plans with alignment to business goals and data. Have a metrics-based conversation with each of your lines of business. Strategize together on the strengths and weaknesses of your current leadership bench and any talent gaps that need to be filled.
  • Use talent assessments to help create baselines and to track growth over time. Telling indicators include engagement, promotion, and retention metrics.
  • Implement at least Kirkpatrick’s Level 1 evaluation (leader-participant reaction), which supports leader self-awareness and self-management, and Kirkpatrick’s Level 2 evaluation, which highlights the leader-participant’s learning and understanding.
  • Use a 360-degree assessment to measure and track leadership capability and impact over time (Level 3: leader-participant behavior).
  • Make leadership development relevant and valuable to participants. Double-check that leaders of the participating leaders reinforce and support the programs before and after the experience.
  • Identify upfront what the company expects to be different as a result of these programs, including the behaviors you expect to change and/or business metrics you hope to shift.
  • Use pre-work and follow-up to ensure participants have a constant reminder to use the newly gained information back on the job.
  • Use retention data to show how your program keeps people in the company. Also, track how many people within the program have received promotions.

From Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer, and Lisa Cummings, vice president of products, Corporate Visions:

  • Don’t ask questions that ask the participants to rate themselves. Instead, ask questions that get them to describe the experiences they are having. In other words, ask experience questions versus personal opinion questions. By doing this, you will get a better sense of what is working for them and what is not.
  • Always seek to create a correlation between behavior change measured by high adopters and low adopters and then match those to a business result. The correlation between behavior and business change will always provide you with meaningful results.
  • Schedule post-class or post-program assessments based on how long you think it will take for the program to actually have a material impact. Simply put, choose a time period that will be a fair assessment for the changes to take hold. Also be sure you eliminate seasonal variances or other variables that will have an impact in order to obtain a fair benchmark.
  • Stop assuming that coaching is unnecessary for your high-potential employees. It can help people achieve things they never knew possible and it’s so much more than just a corrective action tool. A survey we conducted revealed that 87 percent of employees want more coaching.
  • Focus on more than succession-planning metrics. It’s nice to see that your leadership development program resulted in promotions, yet most training programs need to show results quicker than the three to seven years a talent management angle requires. Don’t be afraid of using performance ratings in the person’s current role as one of your metrics. Leadership often is measured with assessments that reflect past behaviors. Great leaders have a trifecta of high potential, excellent behaviors, and high current performance.
  • Measure the leadership participant’s manager, which, in turn, will make coaching also matter to his or her performance.

From Chris Musselwhite, president of Discovery Learning:

  • Shorten the learning horizon. That is the time between taking action and understanding the consequences. Many situations are so complex that leaders often fail to make the connection between their behaviors and actions and the consequences, which may not show up for some time. Making the connection between actions and consequences is critical. Just talking with leaders about this doesn’t work. Experimental activities such as simulated learning can address this problem by shortening the learning horizon in the classroom.
  • Enable participants to learn about their preferences and behavior styles and how those are perceived and interpreted by others. The leadership development work needs to be up close and personal, not abstract and theoretical.
  • Try a 360-degree assessment. Discovery Learning uses a process called the Plus process. Leaders select goals from a 360-degree assessment, after which they are enrolled in a Web-based process that enables them to create a learning network of co-workers who can observe and measure the leader’s progress. After three months, leaders complete a follow-up assessment through this learning network to see how they have progressed toward their selected goals.
  • Make coursework experiential. For example, the Discovery Leadership Program is a four-day program that integrates two simulations and several individual assessments, along with a 360-degree assessment. It utilizes a peer coaching model that enables participants to exchange feedback.
  • Integrate data and experience. Provide participants with data about their styles and preferences, and then in real time they can see their impact on others as they strategize, problem-solve, negotiate, innovate, and resolve conflicts.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. 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.