How to Design an Innovative Leadership Program that Gets Results

How to Design an Innovative Leadership Program that Gets Results

By Katie Maloney, Senior Manager, Sales & Leader Enablement, Skillsoft

Organizations depend upon their leaders to drive success and growth. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that organizations today invest heavily in leadership development programs, with some estimates putting leadership development spending as high as $50 billion annually. However, all too often these programs disappoint. While it is easy to target the employees as perhaps not living up to expectations, the real culprit may be the training itself.

Leadership development must be a holistic and ongoing process, and the conception, design, implementation, and delivery of a learning program must reflect this approach to produce the desired results. Additionally, research shows that when organizations do spend money on leadership development, too often, they spend it disproportionally on senior and executive leaders, rather than front-line and high-potential emerging leaders. This approach leads to a critical lack of a pipeline of talented and innovative employees who can step into leadership roles.

There are five critical steps to consider when building an effective leadership program for leaders at multiple levels: well-defined goals, executive support, program design, delivery method and a defined measurement strategy.

Skillsoft’s Sales Enablement team created Leadership in Focus, ranked 32 in Elearning!’s 2018 Learning! 100, with the goal of developing global sales leaders and high potential sellers. The program illustrates that when a leadership development program combines these elements, the results conclusively prove its value and worth, and the organization now has a pool of talented leaders to ensure its future.

Goal setting

Before embarking on any learning initiative, it is imperative to complete a comprehensive review of both the current situation and the desired learning results. Define the desired outcomes from various stakeholders, including executives, managers, and the learners themselves. Identify the challenges anticipated, such as a dispersed audience, time constraints, varying levels of leadership experience, and propose solutions to each.

Executive support

One of the critical factors affecting the outcomes of a leadership development program is whether it receives executive sponsorship. How organizations deliver this support will vary. For some, it may be a video from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) discussing the purpose and expressing confidence in the participants and the outcomes. In others, it may include executives defining specific topics and competencies they want to address. Executive leadership must recognize that building a pipeline of leaders is paramount if an organization is to be successful.


A continuous, blended learning format provides learners with the opportunity to take training where and when it is most convenient, while also offering learners different modes of learning that cater to different learning styles. Leadership in Focus combined Skillsoft’s world-class multimodal learning assets with external blogs and articles, virtual instructor-led training featuring Skillsoft leaders, and discussion groups.

Continuous assessment throughout the program should test learner knowledge and provide frequent and incremental checkpoints for understanding. Additionally, it is essential to incorporate a way for learners to set actionable goals with milestones targeting application of learning. Leadership in Focus included assessments at the end of each module to ensure the adoption of leadership mind-sets. The “Action Plans” incorporated into the program required learners to identify how they intended to apply what they learned, and how that would lead to tangible and intangible results for the business.

Finally, utilizing a leadership development methodology can provide a unifying approach to leadership throughout an organization. Skillsoft used John Maxwell’s Five Levels of Leadership because it applies to leaders at varying levels, and takes into account their current position on their leadership journey and where they want to go. In this way, Skillsoft focused leadership development proportionally from the senior-leaders to the emerging leaders.


To accommodate busy schedules, give participants time but also set a time-frame. How much time allocated will vary depending on the program. For example, Skillsoft’s Leadership in Focus program occurred over a five-month period and required two hours of learning per month. The learning assets were no more than 15 minutes in length, enabling participants to consume the material during breaks in their day. Skillsoft also announced each new assignment via an Outlook calendar invitation, further ensuring learning integrated into the learners’ daily workflow.

Measuring business impact and ROI

There are a variety of ways and tools to determine the results of a learning program. Cost, active participation, and outcomes are the primary gauges, but there are other factors to consider. Begin by surveying participants to capture learner feedback, their perceived skill increase, how they applied the training, and how that application impacted the business. Analyze these data points to monetize program benefits like changes in operational KPIs, participants’ skill gains relative to their salary, cost displacement, and time savings. This information enables the computation of critical financial ratios, such as Benefit-to-Cost Ratio and Estimated Recovery Point.

An organization can also map how changes participants made as a result of the program influenced the company’s goal to increase revenue. To further examine the effectiveness of the learning, it is useful to monitor the rate of “scrap” learning or learning not applied on the job. Ultimately the desired outcome is that all learning is transferred to the benefit of the organization, so programs with a high “scrap” rate are failing to produce tangible outcomes, and instead generate waste for the organization.

Leadership development is imperative because it nurtures a pipeline of leaders who will ensure a prosperous and competitive future. Organizations must, therefore, prioritize and create continuous, blended learning opportunities that give individuals the skills and knowledge necessary to develop their talents as a leader.

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