How to set up and manage a leadership development programme

6 min read  |   15 December, 2021   By Nick Hardy

Five colleagues are working together around a table. One of the colleagues is stood up and the rest of them are sat down. All the colleagues sat down are smiling and listening to the one stood up.

Are business leaders born or made? While many business leaders certainly have personality traits which inspire people and command respect, this isn’t to say that they haven’t had to work on developing their leadership skills and learn from others. While personality is undeniably an important factor, there are so many other skills which - when combined- create a great leader who people willingly follow.

In this article, we explain what leadership development is and why it is so important. We also discuss steps for establishing an effective leadership development programme which cultivates and grows senior management effectiveness.

What is leadership development?

Why is leadership development important?

Aligning development to organisations and leaders

Implementing a leadership development programme

Five skills to include in a leadership development programme

Managing leadership development programmes

What is leadership development?

Leadership development is how organisations develop existing or potential leaders, improving their skills, confidence and effectiveness and ability to help others, with the purpose of developing and achieving strategic goals.

American television production and business icon Oprah Winfrey says that: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives”.

Why is leadership development important?

Every business needs a strong leadership team if is to succeed. It is their strategic vision, energy and ability to communicate their ideas in a way that engages team members that is the company’s driving force. But leadership is not something static. Even experienced leaders’ skill must evolve in line with a business’ needs and these in line with commercial challenges, goals and opportunities.

The well-known business coach, Hugo Heij says: “True leaders ensure they continue to develop their leadership skills throughout their careers, through learning and development materials and activities.” It is, in other words, a path of continuous education and improvement.

When employees in a firm aim to assume leadership roles, they might not be sure about the appropriate course of action. If they are to succeed in their new roles, they may well need training alongside mentoring and coaching. Each of these three are parts of leadership development programmes.

Leadership development programmes are therefore essential for upskilling existing leaders and training lesser experienced people who are new to leadership roles and responsibilities.

In companies with relatively small teams, there may only be a handful of business leaders but as a company increases in size, so does the need for more managers at different level of seniority. People promoted from junior to more senior positions or employee who join from other companies may well be unused to leadership and need support in this area if they are to succeed in their new roles.

Aligning development to organisations and leaders

A recently formed start-up consisting of five people is a very different organisation to a long-established company with thirty employees, spread across five department and three levels of management. The challenges faced by the start-up and the established company may also be very different with the responsibilities of the leaders of both organisations varying considerably. With this comes the need to establish leadership development programmes which are aligned to each leaders’ role and the respective company strategies. It is this exercise in self-examination that marks the starting point in creating a successful leadership development programme.

Implementing a leadership development programme

When creating a development programme, consider the following points:

  • The short-term and long-term strategic goals of the organisation
  • Existing or expected leadership gaps
  • Leadership traits that are critical to the organisation
  • Alignment of the leadership programme with the company’s growth and demands
  • The impact of leadership programme on your business
  • Development of roles based on employee area aspect of expertise

It is also important to set goals and objectives for the programme to measure its effectiveness and obtain feedback from participants. Some of the goals could be:

  • Impact of the programmes on employees’ professional development
  • Impact of the programmes on employees’ leadership skills
  • Improvements in communication
  • Improvements in motivation and productivity
  • Improvement in recruitment and employee retention

Five skills to include in a leadership development programme


Modern leaders are not invisible operators acting from behind the scenes to influence their teams and line reports. They need – where appropriate – to be working transparently and be accountable to the business for their actions, decisions and outcomes. By training leaders to be accountable for the actions of their line reports, everyone in a business can understand exactly what is expected of them individually and as part of a wider team.

Change management

Organisations evolve, sometimes rapidly and must adapt to changes in the marketplace, growth, employee turnover and a myriad of other factors. The challenges brought about by the pandemic and the need for many people to adapt to working from how, practically overnight in some cases, is an example of the need for rapid change management.

Business leaders must be ready to shepherd their team members and line reports through good and bad times, helping them manage challenges with confidence. Change management should be part of every leadership development programme.

Influence and negotiation

Successful senior managers lead by influencing their teams and line reports, bringing out the best of them and encouraging them to produce their best work. This as opposed to establishing authoritarian regimes and ruling by fear. Rather than demanding things of people the best leaders use more subtle means of influencing people and build strong working relationships which yield positive outcomes and deliver results.


The importance of effective communications – formal and informal- really can’t be overstated. Communications is every business’ oxygen and training in this area is frequently a cornerstone of leadership development programmes. Leaders need to communicate throughout every day and often via a number of different channels, in presentations, team meetings and in one-to-one settings.

Good communications are key to gaining and building people’s trust – especially in challenging, fast-paced times – and the most successful leaders make this a high priority and encourage team members and line reports to do the same. Communications is, of course, a two-way street and good leaders know that listening is vital skill and essential to decision making and effective management.

Coaching and mentoring

Two of the most important inclusions within a leadership development programme is coaching and mentoring. These programmes all you to effectively develop your leaders while addressing the importance of leadership development to the participants.

It is also important for leaders to develop effective coaching and mentoring skills in their own right if they are to unleash the full potential of their direct reports.

While coaching and mentoring are both development programmes with the terms sometimes used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. Depending on your leadership development goal, you’ll want to choose the best one for your needs.

Mentoring in the workplace tends to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague shares their knowledge to support the development of a more inexperienced member of staff. Generally speaking, mentors do not have formal training in mentorship. Their focus is passing on specific skills and training.

Reverse mentoring is also becoming increasingly popular. This is when older members of the workplace are paired with and mentored by younger employees on topics such as technology, social media and current trends.

Coaching is a trained and practiced discipline that helps employees set and reach personal goals that are in line with organisational objectives, taking their skills and leadership capabilities to the next level. Coaching is often provided by formally trained specialists with expertise in HR and personal development.

Managing leadership development programmes

There is an administrative side to managing leadership development programmes, especially as they evolve over time and potentially grow in complexity. It’s important to keep records of each aspect of a plan and the analyse its effectiveness in terms of helping people lead their teams. Most plans will include KPIs which need to be recorded and data analytics are in an important tool in the box for monitoring programme successes and area for improvement.

Dedicated HR management software systems like Breathe are ideal for managing and recording every element of leadership development programmes, making it easy for HR practitioners and senior business leaders to access programme information and analyse results. Technology is now an established part of the world of HR and are key to ensuring training and development programmes are organised and executed simply and efficiently.

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Author: Nick Hardy

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