Learning, leadership, and loyalty become deep-rooted when employee growth is nurtured through a leadership development program, particularly one that is supported and sponsored throughout the firm.

This article illustrates corporate experience and execution of a 12-step approach to becoming an effective and sustainable "learning organization." In today’s turbulent economy, a genuine investment in the excellence of an organization’s people can generate a competitive advantage for the future of the firm.

This 12-step approach reflects the words of John C. Maxwell, a noted expert on leadership: "The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders, and continually develops them."

Incentive: This article highlights the journey of a 50-plus-year-old engineering firm as it transformed itself into a highly profitable organization by developing an internal leadership program. A strategic planning meeting SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – revealed that the firm, nearing 1,000 employees, lacked the leadership development and succession planning to sustain future growth. It was time for an intentional, sustaining commitment to the staff, to the company, to the future. Now in its third year, 14 managers have completed an internal two-year MBA program, and close to 200 staff have gone through some form of leadership training across the firm. Six "steppingstone" courses have been established in-house. The following 12-step approach was more successful than expected.

1) Overcome resistance to change – The transformation to establishing staff development as a high priority at the heart of an organizational culture relies on interaction, tenacity, and enthusiastic executive-level champions who can enlist support and commitment at all levels. Establishing a top-level Executive Leadership Council, for example, can encourage serious buy-in for training programs because members must be actively involved in selecting candidates for a training course and are the first to appreciate the benefits of a better trained staff.

2) Financial allocation – Human resources (or a separate corporate budget) should be responsible for your corporate training programs, not line management, who have other project priorities that may limit the effectiveness of your program. Your training budget should include all expenditures – labor, travel, trainers, consultants, educational materials, incidentals, etc. When negotiating with your CEO/CFO, a little skill and finesse can be persuasive; due diligence is required. For instance, demonstrate how your leadership development funds will better serve corporate commitment to future growth than decentralized expenditures on piecemeal training that is not aligned with corporate core values.

3) Jump-start your program – Leadership articles and online modules by high-caliber learning systems such as Harvard Business Publishing, Development Dimensions International, and Dale Carnegie can be researched and selectively purchased for group sessions in leadership and management. A successful program providing an attitude of elitism among the staff can garner executive agreement to continue your leadership program throughout the organization, and expand financial support.

"The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders, and continually develops them."

4) Engage top management – Actively engage executives and senior managers by inviting them to participate or provide opening remarks at kick-off sessions of leadership management courses. Their emphasis on the relationship of coursework to corporate investment in the future of the employees and the company will encourage participation and dedication. Some managers and executives are especially adept and enthusiastic about assisting with teaching activities, further reinforcing leadership training as a corporate culture and creating a demand for enrollment.

5) Initiate a demand for training – Persuade your executive staff to buy into the practice of looking at the leadership "graduates" for promotions before going to the outside to fill key positions. Although employees must be nominated by line managers to attend a program, the Executive Leadership Council (see Step 1) makes all selections for leadership development programs. When employees understand the selection process, they are more eager to apply and honored to be selected. Selection can be based on business need and employee applications. Often, skilled and creative applicants help identify future leaders at an early stage of their career development.

6) Acknowledge graduates – Make sure graduates receive exposure and recognition. Send a company-wide announcement with their photos, celebrating them as the crème de la crème for future leadership positions with special plaques, dinner parties, and professional group photos for publication and office display. Provide a special gift and a certificate to signify their career achievement. Kudos and rewards should vary with each completed class.

7) Generate a feeling of community – Invite honorees and their spouses, along with company executives, officers, and senior managers, to a special dinner and activity. Whatever the occasion, the cohort of new leaders have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with top corporate leaders to build corporate trust and establish relationships and partnerships that last for years.

8) Endorse career advancement – Be an advocate for leadership development graduates during the merit increase process. Each participant’s progress should be tracked by human resources, and their managers should be notified of leadership participation when the time comes for merit raises and promotions.

9) The "First Class" rule – Without exception, everything you do surrounding the training must be first class, down to the smallest detail. This includes your delivery down to the tablecloths, pitchers of water, prizes, catered hot lunches, dinners, and entertainment, professionally designed and framed certificates, assignment of professional development hours, the graduation process, and the handshake.

10) Engage and motivate – Strive for positive internal evaluations with training that is both engaging and fun. Consider these activities as complements to your lectures: hold team and individual competitions; produce educational videos and discuss; conduct mock real-life scenarios – role-play. Keep students moving and active, engaged, and motivated. Practice each training session with a small pilot group of marketing and human resources staff in advance so that execution is exceptional. Obtain feedback from the class for continuous improvement.

11) Deliver consistently – Establish an annual training plan, without exception, and stick to it, for a consistent, first-class delivery. It is difficult to conceptualize the countless number of preparation hours required. Start weeks before the scheduled trainings to confirm that you are organized and have all the props ready to go. Annual follow-through and delivery generates an immense sense of accomplishment and commitment.

12) Link succession planning to leadership development – Establish an annual succession planning process for identifying, in advance, the "heir to the throne" for key positions. Identify future leaders early, understand their strengths and weaknesses, prepare and develop them to assume the leadership roles of the future. Make leadership development programs part of your organizational culture. The return on investment is invaluable.


Diane Landers, Ph.D., vice president and chief marketing officer, GAI Consultants, applied her passion for leadership and experience as a former university professor to spearhead a board-level initiative to develop the first corporate-wide Leadership Program for the firm. Landers teamed with David Mollish, chief human resources officer, who has developed and administered leadership programs for Fortune 500 firms. In less than a year, they launched the Leadership Development Program for GAI Consultants (www.gaiconsultants.com), a national engineering and environmental consulting firm. Contact Landers or Mollish at 412-476-2000. Special thanks to Lynda Shirley and Allison O’Konski for assistance preparing this article.