Thumbs Up or Hands On? Executive Endorsement vs. Involvement

When it comes to leadership development programs, it’s crucial that employees feel management and company executives are all on board.

It happens to every leadership development practitioner eventually. You’ll be facilitating a powerful leadership program for a group of eager middle or senior managers. Everyone is engaged and the content is resonating. Then, having recognized the impact and value of the training, one of the participants will ask a crucial question: Have our leaders gone through this training yet?

Few things are as exasperating as hypocrisy from our authority figures. Just as it frustrated us when our parents told us to “do as I say, not as I do,” it frustrates us when our leaders don’t eat the same leadership superfood they’re feeding us. 

When bosses put lower-ranking employees and managers through leadership programs that promote a philosophy they aren’t even aware of, or worse, are incapable of role-modeling, then the benefits of that program, however powerful, will diminish rapidly. Employees start to think, “Well, if the execs don’t think this program is all that worthwhile, why would I spend much time or effort on it? It probably won’t last, anyway.” 

When it comes to leadership development (LD) programs, it’s crucial that employees feel management and company executives are all on board. After all, these are the future leaders of the company you’re trying to identify and develop, and the full engagement of senior leaders, especially, is a vital part of preparing your company for leadership success in future generations. 

While executive leadership needs to be involved, it’s important to figure out the right level of involvement. Too much senior executive classroom involvement can cause attendees to be on guard, feeling like they’re being scrutinized or micromanaged. Too little involvement, such as when the CEO spends two minutes kicking off a program and then skedaddles, causes attendees to feel like the involvement was perfunctory. You might as well show a prerecorded video of the executive. This type of “ribbon-cutting” appearance from executives is just endorsement, and there’s a big difference between endorsement and involvement. Endorsement is a baseline expectation; it’s the kind of thing that can send a negative signal if it’s notthere, but it doesn’t add to the transformative aspect that is the key point of a leadership development program.

3 Advantages

What does an appropriate level of executive involvement look like? It can take many forms, from leading a couple of content segments to participating in a group breakout discussion or hosting “off-campus” events such as dinners. Whatever form it takes, the goal should be to connect with the future leaders and demonstrate that you’re doing more than showing up and “checking the box.” They want to know you understand what’s being trained, you believein what’s being trained, you supportwhat’s being trained, and you’re involved in what’s being trained. Executive involvement beyond mere endorsement has three significant advantages:

  • It increases the perception of both the prestige and effectiveness of the LD program itself.
  • It provides executives with firsthand knowledge and insight into future leaders being developed in the program, smoothing the way for good working relationships as those employees advance in the future.
  • It’s inexpensive. While executive time is, of course, valuable, there is little to no expense in getting them involved, and their presence will have a huge impact on participants. In other words, the ROI on such involvement is extraordinary.

Look for further opportunities to weave the leaders of today into the programming that will be shaping the leaders of tomorrow—this will be the defining difference between a program whose impact quickly wanes, and one employees can look back on and point to as a moment where their leadership journey was transformed for good.

Bill Treasurer is the founder and chief encouragement officer at Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company that exists to help people and organizations live more courageously, and the author of “A Leadership Kick in the Ass.” A former member of the U.S. High Diving Team, Treasurer is considered the originator of the new organizational development practice of courage-building. For more than two decades, he has designed and delivered leadership and succession planning programs for experienced and emerging leaders for clients such as NASA, Accenture, CNN, Saks Fifth Avenue, Hugo Boss, UBS Bank, Walsh Construction, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


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