These 4 Things Make Leadership Development Successful

These 4 Things Make Leadership Development Successful

It’s no secret that great companies cultivate leaders who have the ability to spot upcoming challenges and risks, and then motivate their organisation to respond.

This need is now growing as companies face increasing challenges from digitalisation, the impact of artificial intelligence in automating workforces and driving business performance, and in the immense capabilities of using data across the organisation.

These forces put an ever-increasing need on businesses to develop and appoint better, more capable leaders who can manage and drive these massive changes.

But how will that happen?

Unfortunately, the evidence is stacking up to show that our current leadership development is not delivering the goods.

The global Leadership Development industry, worth more than $50 billon, spanning books, articles, conferences, seminars, services and TED-like talks, has shown itself to be disappointing.

A recent Fortune survey revealed that only 10 percent of respondents believed their leadership-development initiatives had a clear business impact and Just 7 percent of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders.

The latest research from McKinsey & Company tells a similar story.

Of the 500 executives across the globe polled in this latest piece of research, only 11% strongly agreed with the statement that their leadership-development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results.

The survey focused on which specific circumstances led to the emergence of effective leadership development programs…and which did not.

The results were compelling.

It will not surprise our readers to know that the research showed a great deal needs to be aligned in order to achieve scaleable results, and clearly there is no “silver bullet”. 

However, before we give up, the research also clearly shows that there are a series of actions and interventions which, cumulatively, can drastically increase the chances of successfully developing and nurturing excellent leaders.

Success rate of leadership-development program

Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company

Although the list of contributing developmental actions and interventions was long, the results did show that certain actions had considerably more impact than others.

In fact, there were four things that emerged as being the most essential:

  • Focusing on critical leadership behaviours and qualities based on context
  • Ensuring sufficient reach across the organisation
  • Designing the program for the transfer of learning
  • Using system reinforcement to lock in change.

This graphic highlights the success of each of these strategies on developing leadership performance:

Increase in organisation's overall success rate

Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company

Other important contributing factors included individual fieldwork between forums (3.6x), being strengths based (3.4x), coaching (3.2x), and addressing mind-sets (2.9x).

The results also served to highlight the pivotal role that technology plays in delivering strong leadership development.


What this ultimately points to is that without the breadth and depth of these factors identified in the research, leadership development programmes simply won’t have the impact that produces the kind of leaders that organisations need in this stormy economic landscape.

So what can they do to change that?

The research is clear.

If you want to ensure your leadership development programme is going to move the needle in terms of business impact:

  1. Focus on understanding the leadership behaviours that lead to success at each level of the organisation, and focus your efforts on hiring for and cultivating them.
  2. Develop a programme for leaders that is offered right across the board. One that is inclusive and does not leave out departments or teams within your organisation that may be traditionally seen as insignificant.
  3. Having a common language and a common developmental pathway for your business creates congruence and predictability in performance.
  4. Finally, design your leadership development programme with the aim of developing leaders who can then pass on their learning to the next generation. Great leaders create other great leaders.  And we all know that teaching others allows us to more deeply integrate those teachings into our own thinking and leadership approach.

Of course, the challenge lies in the implementation of these kinds of programmes.

Which is why having a company-wide training programme and a leadership assessment process (which helps benchmark, review and train managers and leaders based on data rather than on observation or hearsay) can be an immensely time-saving, effort-saving approach for companies who are ready to increase the business impact of their leadership development programme.

So, now it’s your turn.

What’s been the most effective intervention for developing leaders in your business or organisation?

What’s the one thing that challenges your leadership teams the most?

Share your comments below – we’d love to hear what you have to say!

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