How Great Companies Are Building Leadership Training Programs

 A leadership training program in session

Developing Leaders Employee Experience Leadership & Management Training & Development

The leaders of tomorrow won’t be there if you don’t invest in them.

High-trust culture starts with great leadership.

It has outsized influence on an organization’s overall culture. So, if leadership is so important to create a great workplace, how to develop your next generation of business leaders becomes an existential question.

That’s what prompted BluSky Restoration Contractors to create a formal leadership training program. 

“What are we doing to grow people that we want to be able to promote one or two levels above where they’re at today?” says BluSky CEO Drew Bisping, reflecting on the questions BluSky leadership has discussed in developing a training program. “Are we formally identifying them, and are we putting them through the right training that really is needed for that next step?”

Leadership development has also become a core part of many organizations’ diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies. With significant contributions from its employee resource groups (ERGs), Progressive Insurance® created a 12- to 18-month program to help ERG members and others grow their careers.

What leadership programs offer

At BluSky, the Emerging Leaders Program is a five-month program with around 20 people participating at a time. The program, a key pillar of the company’s broader culture and leadership development strategy, is also broken into smaller components where some employees can get involved in a smaller way without completing the full program.

Participants have a personalized program of both internal trainings and external coursework from universities like Harvard, Wharton, and Vanderbilt. At the end of the five months, participants deliver a presentation on what they learned to BluSky leaders.

The presentation tests how future leaders can tell a story and inspire others to follow them.

“At the culmination of the program, they have to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I did; here's what I learned; here's how I apply it’ — and they have to do that on a stage, which is for some easy and for some not,” Bisping says.

To identify what modules to include in the training program, BluSky’s Simone Kelly, VP of leadership development, talked to current leaders to identify their strengths and weaknesses and analyze what future leaders might need.

“If you think about any business, you’ve got to sell the work, produce the work, and account for the work,” says Bisping. “Leaders would be strong in one, or maybe strong in two, but never strong in three.”

Progressive’s Multicultural Leadership Development Program (MLDP) consists of 12 to 18 months of workshops, business cases, action learning projects, and exposure to different areas of the business and senior leaders in the organization.

The program supports Progressive’s diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives, ensuring its leadership reflects the people they lead and building a fair and inclusive work environment. Committing to those objectives means the program isn’t designed to force participants into a leadership mold.

“From the beginning, it was important that this program was not intended to ‘fix’ anybody,” says Marisa Afzali, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Progressive. “Rather, it was to tap into the enormous talent already existing within Progressive and to find ways to support, provide exposure for, and help individuals realize their talents and apply them in new ways.”

The program has a long tail effect for employees who participate.

“There is now a very strong alumni program — created by graduates — which continues to do book clubs, invite in guest speakers, host business acumen sessions, and more,” Afzali shares. “It highlights how incredibly motivated and talented the graduates of this program are.”

Selecting participants

Who gets the nod to participate in a leadership program? It’s important that these growth opportunities are seen as fair, as participation often coincides with promotion plans.

At Progressive, a large number of interested applicants submit an application and a manager’s recommendation to be considered for the program.

“We set eligibility criteria in terms of job roles and functions for each of the program cohorts,” Afzali says. “We then market the program internally to employees in those roles, welcoming a diverse pool of interested employees.”

Only a select group moves on to the interview stage, after which the program participants are chosen for the next cohort.

At BluSky, selecting participants relies heavily on senior managers who are familiar with an employee’s performance.

“Are they stepping up and performing in their current role, and is this somebody that we think we should invest in?” Bisping offers as questions the company uses to identify candidates. “I personally can't see that, and so I have to rely on the leaders below.”

Cost and ROI

How are companies making the business case for leadership programs which, they admit, are not inexpensive?

The value for BluSky is somewhat intangible, according to Bisping. That’s in part because of how long it will take for the investment to be felt by the organization as new leaders rise through the ranks.

“I’m comfortable not knowing the data behind my return,” he says. “It’s more of a belief that I’m willing to invest and I’m going to make that part of my culture and my spend. And I just know that I’ll get it back.”

His timeline? He thinks it will be five to 10 years before he has meaningful data.

That doesn’t mean BluSky isn’t putting significant resources into its program. As Bisping explains, the leadership program “started with a willingness to spend.” When asked for a ballpark dollar figure for the program, Bisping confirmed it was north of seven figures.

At Progressive, the MLDP is evaluated based on promotions earned by large numbers of program participants in the years shortly after graduation.

“Our initial program, which is focused on entry-level leaders, remains highly successful,” Afzali says. Ninety percent of graduates have earned a promotion or made a career-enhancing move within two years after completing the program.”

Newer programs that were added for aspiring leaders who are not yet in management roles are also showing success, with half to two-thirds of graduates being promoted or making career-enhancing moves.  

What about the concern that you pay to train an employee and they leave the company? Bisping says leaders should also consider the converse proposition: “What if I don’t, and they stay?”

Getting started

Here are some tips to start to build your own leadership development program:

1. Acknowledge your leadership weaknesses.

A successful leadership program requires that you let go of preconceived notions about how leaders develop in your organization.

“First of all, you have to believe that it’s not going to happen on its own,” Bisping says. “There's a point in your organizational growth where you can’t just depend on talented managers on their own. Even with great leadership within the organization, those leaders need a formal structure to follow and create sustainable impact on their team members.”

Once you identify the places where development and training could improve the organization, you can design an appropriate course of study.

2. Commit to a spend.

Even if you are creating internal programs and resources, you will need staff time and perhaps new hires to facilitate the process. It doesn’t have to be the big amount that large multinational companies are putting into their learning and development programs, but Bisping says you must commit.

3. Bring in experts with experience in leadership development.

Having someone who has experience in developing leaders and creating a leadership training program can accelerate your efforts.

“We probably were fumbling around with it for the five to 10 years prior, and never really getting there,” says Bisping. “I think one of the most impactful pieces was to say, ‘OK, I'm going to hire a professional.’”

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Ted Kitterman