Build Leadership From Within

12 Key Points to Building an Internal Leadership University

Companies hoping to retain millennial talent and build future leaders favor an internal leadership university concept. A client asked about the ‘gotchas’ involved in building a leadership program. I did a quick review and here’s what I found successful programs have in common.

Point 1: Pay Attention to History

Steve Prefontaine, While at the University of Oregon

The history of the company is a powerful influence on leader development and cultural sustainability. Great companies like Nike (need I say more) integrate their culture and history deeply into leadership development programs.

Point 2:  Pay Attention to Business Strategy.

Leadership development investments must be integrated with business strategy. Developing people outside of a strategic context solves almost nothing. People tend to grow frustrated with an education that cannot be used in the context of their business.

Point 3: Pay Attention to Competencies

Competencies are the best way to judge if someone is performing (or capable of performing). Clearly identifying the vital leadership competencies that are important to your culture and organization allows you to set an orientation for the leader development program. Consider these big 6 leader competencies identified in the book Competencies at Work:

  • Relationship building
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Influence and skillful use of power
  • Drive and energy
  • Organizing and planning (time management and delegating)
  • Communicating 

Point 4: Link to Succession

Link leader development initiatives to succession planning. This gives your talent-development investment a real business focus. Plans should be tiered – succession is not only important at the top levels. Good leaders at the action-management level impact company performance.

Point 5: Action-Learning Pays Off

Use action-learning strategies as stretch assignments. Real-world problems for future leaders to work on produces value for the leader (training in context) and value for the company (innovation and ideas). This is the best way to teach leaders how to solve real business problems. I know a CEO who uses this method to help develop strategic initiatives. He gives 3 tiger teams the task to figure out a business problem and then present solutions back to him. His process encourages deep learning about the company, the market, and the teams experience what it’s like to be on the hot-seat.

Point 6: Identify Linchpin Positions

Linchpin assignments have big-time business impact and exist at multiple levels in the organization. When those roles become vacant you do not want to simply launch a talent search. Linchpin roles need to have a pipeline of talent queued up to be considered for the assignment for two reasons. First, you achieve speed to market in your replacement strategy. Second, you put people into critical roles who have likely already demonstrated business competencies within the context of your business.

Point 7: Drip-Feed Content

If you’ve ever gone to a week-long training you know it is a wonderful experience while you are there, but it is also nearly impossible to apply everything when you return. A strategy to overcome this is to drip-feed the development concepts over time – topic of the month or quarter works well. When comprehensive multi-day training programs are used, make sure to blend the theoretical with practical and emphasize application.

Point 8: Narrow the Focus

Addressing one to two competencies can make a huge difference in company performance. I have a book that lists 67 competencies and another 10 performance dimensions. If an organization tried to implement just a quarter of that content it would be too much. Those books provide great ideas to learn about competencies, but you should narrowly select a few business skills that can make an immediate impact, and build on those.

Point 9: Train for Compliance Develop for Change

Training programs rarely cause change. On the other hand, development programs generate change because they unleash thinking capacity and the natural drive people have to want to improve real business situations. Keep training relegated to compliance items, particularly around legal, administrative, and HR processes that can get the manager, employee, or company into trouble. Use development strategies to drive change.

Point 10: Measure

Measuring development processes can be difficult. To some extent 360 interviews are useful. External coaches are another avenue to measure progress. Keep in mind the best measures will link performance of the organization to leadership; and, then be able to trace leadership success to leader development investments. When we maintain that sort of alignment we can more confidently target leader-growth investments.

Point 11: Coach Like Wooden.

John Wooden, famous UCLA Basketball Coach, used a simple pattern that I’ve used successfully as both an athletic coach and a business coach. The Wooden pattern, while simple, requires a commitment of engagement from the leader.

Step 1: Demonstrate – show how something is to be done.

Step 2: Imitate – let the player copy.

Step 3: Correct – adjust performance to get the right outcome.

Step 4: Repetition – repetition is the key to retained learning.

Point 12: Integrate Common Business Skills

Integrate business skills with leadership development at all levels in the organization. It’s not enough to be able to be good with people, your leaders need to understand business. A few vital business skills facing a new generation of leaders include:

  • Strategy building and business planning
  • How to solve problems and organize to deliver results
  • Finance and economics
  • Markets and customers
  • Ethics
  • Collaboration
  • Negotiation
  • Leading change
  • Design thinking

Leadership development consultants should bring a wealth of knowledge from experience, but also pull from the best thinking in the industry. I tend to favor HBR’s blog, which distills research into practical business advice. Here are the articles I used to frame my 12 points.

Why Leadership Training Fails and What to do About It

Leading the Team You Inherit

Make Your Company a Talent Factory

Developing Your Leadership Pipeline

Building a Game Changing Talent Strategy

Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool

Why Leadership Development Programs Fail

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Leaders247 developed an agile process for talent-development strategies and organizational coaching. The result is structure and logic around talent and organizational initiatives that make sure they are business-driven, need-driven, time-bound, trackable, responsive, and sustainable. Our focus is on business value and organizational performance. Let us know if you’d like to talk about your leadership program.