Building a team of leaders Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

When companies need to develop high-performance leadership, they turn to professional development programs. But when organizations settle for a one-size-fits-all plan to develop future leaders, they can end up with a mishmash of people who may never be capable of moving up to higher positions.

Weak professional development programs can have other negative effects.

“If a good program is not put in place, you get low morale, because if everybody can get accepted to it, the quality of the program gets challenged,” says Dr. Stephen Brock, D. Min, LPCC, RCC, of Coles College of Business. “People start looking at it as the flavor of the month, and they don’t take it seriously.”

Smart Business recently spoke with Brock about what you should put at the core of an impactful professional development program and how the right frequency and accountability for learning can produce the best results.

Why can it be difficult to select useful professional development programs?

It’s difficult to choose an effective program because many don’t have a lot of teeth at their core — they tend to be oneor two-day mini-retreats or workshops. Often, the programs are superficial — either too short or not based on an experiential model of adult learning that requires people to take what they’re learning and go use it, and then come back and talk about what worked and what didn’t work. Another problem occurs when they don’t focus on the different core competencies needed by the business.

A third issue is most programs focus still on weaknesses rather than strengths. Companies tend to do assessments and then look for a gap analysis and focus all the attention on people’s weaknesses rather than attempting to help them leverage their strengths. A final difficulty is the selection or identification of participants. Many companies today still do not have any succession planning in place. They don’t look at future needs and then look at the pool of resources they have that might meet those needs.

What makes up a good professional development program?

There are five elements in a good program. First, a good professional development program has a number of assessments used throughout the program to help individuals understand truly what their strengths, assets and liabilities, and vulnerabilities are in terms of their work. The second element is it needs to be based on a solid leadership model. There are lots of leadership models out there — many of them a variation on a theme — and several are excellent models to build your program around. A third element is that it should be experientially based with homework, meaning it’s not just sitting and taking notes and then ignoring them. There has to be something you are actually executing between sessions, no matter how frequent the sessions.

I also believe the program has to include training in and involvement with coaching and mentoring. I think every manager and every leader needs to understand how to coach and mentor others for their professional development. A good manager or leader is always working to get his or her people growing. Finally, the program has to be frequent enough that people feel the level of accountability for learning.

How does an effective program benefit the organization?

The first benefit obviously is that you have a pipeline of people who are going to be prepared to move up when people exit due to age or opportunities elsewhere or as the company expands, grows and develops the need for new leaders. At the same time, you may have two or three outstanding people who are prepared to take leadership roles so, if one exits the company, you’re not losing anything. Additionally, with an effective program, turnover immediately begins to decrease and the amount of time it takes for the company to make an adjustment is lessened — quite a cost savings, particularly as people move up into the higher positions.

What is the role of mentoring or coaching around professional development programs?

On the mentoring side of it, for example, you can put a fairly novice person in a leadership position with somebody who’s more seasoned. As a result there’s a lot of learning that can be passed from generation to generation through experience. That’s a quick cost savings when people don’t have to go burn their hand on the stove because somebody else already did and they learn from that person.

Coaching has demonstrated it can be quite an asset to helping people develop because you’re not giving them answers — you’re inviting them to make plans and set goals, and then you’re holding them accountable for the results. IBM, for years, had a coaching program that was considered state of the art. There is even a number of small companies who employ coaching to help their employees develop better skills and competencies in particular areas the person is interested in understanding.

DR. STEPHEN BROCK, LPCC, RCC, is a professor of leadership at Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University. Reach him at (678) 231-3812 or