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  • Writer's pictureRhys Green

What Is A Leadership Development Program?

Leadership development programs conjure up images of a dingy conference room in a Holiday Inn Express somewhere deep in the Kansas City suburbs. However, there’s a lot more to a good leadership development program than bad coffee and a slide deck.

So, what is a leadership development program?

The most admired companies in the world know the value of cultivating leadership in-house.

"Our guests are more likely to return based on our interactions with cast members who are more prepared, more willing if they have great leadership that supports them," says Bruce Jones, the programming coordinator for the Disney Institute, Disney’s training organization.

Amazon prepays 95% of tuition for employees at fulfillment centers to take courses in in-demand fields & Marriott International offers training on a diverse range of topics including Work/Life Balance.

So, What do all of these companies have in common?

They understand that an investment in the development of their people is an investment in their customer experience and the growth of their business.

Leadership development programs differ greatly between organizations. But they’re usually made up of some or all of the tactics outlined below:

Training & Workshops

There are two common types of content offered as part of these leadership development programs.

Function: relating directly to the job function or the value chain of the business. A great example of this is Goldman Sachs who offers a comprehensive “onboarding” program that takes talented graduates from any discipline and gives them the skills and connections they need to become effective analysts.

Managerial: teaching people to lead and manage themselves and others. Disney Institute is by far the most robust example of this. They did such a good job this is now a revenue-producing part of their business.

There is a third type of content being more and more widely offered focuses on helping develop people more holistically, with topics like mindfulness training, popping up at companies including Nike, Apple, and General Mills. Although the business impact of this last type of training is yet to be proven, it is certainly being used as a differentiator to attract top talent.


This is a term that I hear used for a variety of actions, “I’m going to go and coach that person.”

To me, coaching is more about a type of relationship and the intent behind it than it is anyone single action. In a coaching relationship, one person (the coach) takes on the role of assisting another person in improving their performance to achieve a particular outcome or set of outcomes.

The best way I can illustrate this is by telling the story of my high school goalkeeper coach, Coach Jim. When he and I met I was a slightly above average Goalkeeper. After we worked together for 18 months I was achieving things I’d never thought possible. So what did he do?

Aside from genuinely caring about me as a human being he:

  • Took the time to understand my goals.

  • Observed my process.

  • Delivered feedback to help me achieve my goals.

  • Educated me on nutrition.

  • Taught me how to lift weights.

  • Explained the mental game and helped me manage mine.

  • Held me accountable.

  • Pushed me when I needed it.

  • Made me take a break when I needed it.

In the context of a leadership development program, the goal of a coaching relationship is to improve skill and understanding within the realm of leading people. This assumes that to achieve their goals, an individual needs to be a stronger leader. I have done this in both group and individual relationships, they are both effective.

However, even in a group, I’ve found there is a need for individual observation and one on one feedback to ensure everyone keeps moving forward together.

Whether the coach is a part of the organization or an external party their role is the same, to advance the person they’re coaching toward their goals. In a business environment, the coach will want to make sure the individual's goals, as best they can line up with those of the organization (see the principal-agent problem for more detail about the importance of this). If they’re not then time should be invested in getting them to align or there’s a pretty good chance this organization isn’t the right one for this person anymore.

Mentoring Program

I believe it’s difficult to have an effective coaching relationship without the elements of mentoring also being present. You’ll find plenty of contradictory opinions out there, however, I’ve never seen any real evidence that contradicts what I’ve observed here. That being said a mentoring program is a little different than just straight mentoring.

In a mentoring program, the organization provides guidance and a framework to facilitate successful mentoring relationships. These relationships are much less time-intensive than a coaching relationship, which is part of why a lot of companies go for them. So what does it take to make a mentor program work? Add in the below ingredients to any one of those and you’ll have a winner.

  • Mentors who are excited to learn from their mentee.

  • Mentee’s who are excited to learn from their mentor.

  • Regular opportunities to build a relationship (Tip: texting or IM apps are a great tool for this).

  • A framework for asking good questions.

  • An outlet to share learning for between mentees.

  • A network for mentors to share learning about how they’re helping or learning from their mentees.


This one is pretty simple.

The company pays for a portion of some type of professional development. I’ve seen this most regularly in professional services companies or trades businesses e.g. a law firm may contribute to repaying student loans, an accounting firm may pay for 80% of the cost of obtaining a CPA designation, and an electrical contractor may pay for 50% of their apprentice's tuition.

Outside of direct professional or vocational training, there is often a more general contribution available e.g. an executive could have part of a course on innovation paid for. All of these programs usually come with some catches that ensure your business gets a return on its investment:

  • An employee must stay a certain amount of time after they’ve completed their studies.

  • If the employee fails they must repay the contribution.

  • The employee must conduct a teach-back to share the knowledge with their teams.

  • This type of program quickly becomes seen as part of the compensation package.

So as you plan to roll one out, consider all the same implications you would for a comp change.


A shared learning experience can be so powerful.

That’s part of why I love workshops and we do so many of them. Conferences can be one of the most impactful versions of these. I’ve seen companies support their people attending these in a variety of ways starting from simply allowing them to take the time off (paid) to attend them and leveraging their credibility to help their employees get speaking opportunities at them.

There are so many conferences out there.

To me, this is kind of funny considering I came up as the internet did and I heard many predictions that conferences and tradeshows were a thing of the past. While the internet has certainly changed the landscape here, I think it’s just made us appreciate the value of getting like-minded people in the same room even more.

"…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to."
- Howard Givner

Read the rest of this article here.

That feels like a pretty good investment of time and energy to me.

Industry Associations

Almost every industry has an association.

When I was leading call centre operations for 1-800-Got-Junk? We were a member of the British Columbia Contact Centre Association, among other organizations.

As a developing leader, attending these events was exciting and always interesting. Eventually, I even got the chance to participate as a keynote speaker. Some of the things I learned as part of this organization saved 1-800-Got-Junk? millions over the years and the cost was less than $600 a year.

There are so many of these opportunities out there even if your industry or function doesn’t have something specific like my example above, try things like:

  • Chamber of Commerce.

  • Board of Trade

  • BNI

  • Toast Masters

  • Private clubs e.g. Soho house

There aren’t too many activities that can offer the types of returns this one can.

Learning Groups

This is something I did back when I was leading salespeople and had some peer leaders. We had some common topics we wanted to learn and we didn’t have a large budget. There were four of us so we would choose a topic together once a month.

Here is how we’d learn it:

  1. Choose a date for one month in the future.

  2. Have each participant read the book and creates a 5-minute presentation on what they learned.

  3. Invite an expert on the topic from within our network to join the discussion.

  4. Host the meeting.

  • Everyone presents.

  • Expert presents.

  • Discuss (similarities + differences)

  • How we might apply.

This worked well for so many reasons. It costs $100 max, plus our time, and again, the learning we were able to apply was responsible for millions of dollars in improvements.

Are you ready to invest in the leaders of your organization? Create a powerful in-house team of emerging talent? Let's get in touch to discuss how one of my Trailblaze Partner's workshops can help your team realize their true potential.

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