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Developing Mid-Level and Senior Leaders

Q: What methods are most commonly used to develop mid-level and senior leaders, and how do I determine which methods are best for my organization?

A: Leadership development programs typically focus on improving leadership knowledge, skills and abilities to improve organizational performance and on preparing high-potential employees to replace key players. Three methods are commonly used for developing mid-level and senior leaders:

  • Formal, structured training courses (e.g., classroom or web-based).
  • Individual development tools (e.g., assessments, 360-degree feedback, coaching, mentoring).
  • Job assignments (job rotation, special developmental project, etc.).

Formal training is by far the most common method used to develop leaders. Typically, training lasts three to five days and is conducted at an off-site location. The training programs designed for mid-level and senior managers usually are customized programs that capture the organization's unique culture and competitive challenges. This type of leadership training is best suited for skill development and deepening managers' understanding of leadership principles and their business acumen. The strengths of formal training are the flexibility and efficiency it offers. The weaknesses are the poor transfer of learning and the potential lack of support on the job.

The second most commonly used leadership development methodology is individualized development. Most often this takes the form of assessments and/or executive coaching. The most commonly used assessment is 360-degree, or multi-rater, feedback. Other assessments, such as emotional intelligence and/or personality assessments -- the California Psychological Inventory and the Hogan Personality Inventory, for example -- often are used in conjunction with 360-degree feedback.

A key advantage of 360-degree feedback is the ability to collect different perspectives of a leader's performance systematically. This allows leaders to see their performance from a variety of viewpoints and creates a more complete picture of their strengths and development opportunities.

Another advantage of 360-degree feedback is the ability to help leaders understand common development opportunities as seen by one or more of the rating groups. It is important to note, however, that these strengths can turn into weaknesses if the tool is not managed properly. Such feedback can produce an overwhelming amount of data, and some leaders taking part in the process may not be prepared to learn how they are viewed by other people. Therefore, it is critical to create a process that ensures a safe learning environment by maintaining strict confidentiality around feedback data and by providing leaders an opportunity to discuss feedback (good or bad) with an unbiased third party who's experienced at interpreting the particular assessment instrument's data.

For these reasons, executive coaching has emerged as a popular leadership development tool. Executive coaching is a practical, goal-focused form of one-on-one development. Each engagement is custom-designed, focusing on a leader's particular development goals.

Typical coaching engagements begin with assessments (e.g., personality, 360-degree feedback) coupled with telephone interviews with selected colleagues. A feedback and goal-setting session is then held, followed by six to eight months of ongoing coaching using a variety of media (e.g., telephone, in-person meetings and e-mail).

The strength of this type of development method is the personalization and intensive learning it provides a leader. However, a key drawback to this type of development is the perceived stigma (i.e., coaching is remedial) and the expense compared with other development methods.

The third key kind of leadership development is developmental job assignments. These tie leaders' individual development to the process of helping their organization respond to business problems. To be effective, these assignments must stretch the leaders, push them out of their comfort zone, and require them to think and act differently.

By tackling unfamiliar tasks and seeing the consequences of their actions, leaders can learn much. There is no hard and fast rule about the length of time these types of assignments should last; however, a leader must remain in the assignment long enough to see the consequences of his or her actions and decisions. In fact, a key advantage of using this developmental approach is that it teaches leaders to remain open to learning from their experiences and to be willing to try new challenges.

A key drawback to this approach is that learning from a challenging job assignment is much more difficult than learning from formal training programs. This is because potential leadership lessons might not be obvious, and leadership development usually is not the primary objective when an organization places a manager in such an assignment.

It is important to remember that one size does not fit all when determining which leadership development methods to use in an organization. In fact, most organizations take a multi-pronged approach and employ a variety of learning techniques. The types of development activities companies employ should be driven, at least in part, by the prevailing organizational culture and the training budget.

Colleen Mills, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and executive coach of the Atlanta-based leadership development and executive coaching firm FASTLANE Coaching and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel. She can be reached at


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