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The role of senior leadership in successful people development


April 19, 2023

Ever wished your board were more engaged with people development?

Unfortunately, many of you will be nodding your heads as you read this.

Despite 82% of executives agreeing that people strategy is central for success*, it’s still notoriously difficult to get board members to become an intrinsic part of people development activities.

But if you can get them engaged, you (and they) will reap the rewards, and they will become an indispensable part of future people development programmes.

* LinkedIn 2023 Workplace Learning Report

The importance of senior leadership involvement

It’s essential for your senior leadership to understand the beneficial impact they can have by getting more directly involved in developing their people.

The 70-20-10 rule

Back in the 1980s researchers Morgan McCall, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert A. Eichinger developed the 70-20-10 rule for leadership development:

  • 70% of learning is from on-the-job experiences.
  • 20% of learning is from exposure to developmental relationships.
  • 10% of learning is from education through training and coursework.

70-20-10 rule for leadership development presented as a pie chart

Senior leadership has the opportunity to positively impact all three areas, not just approving budget for the 10% of learning done in the classroom.

The 20% of learning which comes from relationships should ideally involve senior leaders, as well as direct managers and peers. Senior leaders can contribute hugely to the individual’s own leadership skills development.

Finally, the 70% of learning which comes from experience in the job also involves senior leaders. Their high profile in the organisation means people will already be learning from their behaviour, whether the leader has considered this or not.

Read more about the 70-20-10 rule.

Focusing the minds of participants

Involving senior leaders in training programmes will naturally sharpen the attention of participants.

Dedicating some precious senior management time emphasises that the organisation values both the training opportunity and the delegates involved in it.

Encouraging innovation

One of the great things about development programmes is the fresh ideas and innovative thinking they can inspire.

If senior leaders are not engaged with the programme it can be more difficult for participants to promote their ideas. They can inadvertently introduce a glass ceiling and stifle new thinking.

Tactics to increase senior leadership buy in

Engage with your HR Director

This may be an obvious one, but your HR Director should be leading the charge to make learning and development a focus for your board. Therefore, building a strong relationship with your HR Director is a critical first step.

Find a sponsor

One voice on the board isn’t enough. Identify a board member who is an active stakeholder in the success of the development programme and ask them to be your sponsor.

Hold regular meetings with your sponsor to keep them updated and engaged, and ensure that they’re aware of the positive impact the programme is having.

Two business people talking

Link your programme with the wider strategy

Consider the organisational strategies which are agreed at board level, and which of these your programme will have a positive impact on.

For example, if it’s a talent development programme then this will support the wider organisation’s succession planning, which is probably discussed and agreed at board level.

Emphasising this connection will demonstrate the strategic benefits of your programme.

Focus on finances

Assuming the programme’s budget already has board approval, your senior leaders will want the maximum return on investment.

Explain how their involvement will help to get more benefits from the training. If possible, use real life examples from previous programmes which demonstrate tangible benefits.

It simply might not have occurred to them that giving up a couple of hours of their time could make a significant difference to the outcomes of development programmes.

Build a brand for your programme

This might sound ridiculous, but having a memorable and meaningful name for your development programme will help it stick in the minds of your senior leadership.

And don’t stop there, consider how you can market it internally, creating a positive buzz around it, so everyone on your board will want to be associated with it.

Publicise your successes

When your development programme has a success, make sure this is communicated at board level. For example, this could be an individual promotion or a clear link between your programme and the success of a project.

It’s particularly important to give credit to your board sponsor for supporting the programme at this point – that will encourage them to do the same in the future, and others to follow in their footsteps.

Businessman presenting to a team

Ideas for senior leadership involvement

OK, so you have their buy in, but what exactly are you going to ask your senior leaders to do? Here are some ideas.

Mentoring participants

This is a relatively common way of engaging senior leadership in talent development, but worth mentioning nonetheless.

Before embarking on mentoring it’s important that your senior leaders receive some training themselves, to ensure that they understand the purpose and dynamics of a mentoring relationship.

Reverse mentoring

This is a relatively new idea, but one which could benefit both the more senior, and more junior, team members.

Older and younger businesswomen chatting

The principle is to reverse the mentoring roles, so the senior leader is mentored by the more junior employee.

While this might sound counterintuitive, there are often many topics where the senior leader has, perhaps, become a little out of touch. Technology and digital media is a common theme for reverse mentoring, particularly taking advantage of any Gen Z employees.

Customer insights can be another useful subject – often senior leaders become disconnected from day to day customer interactions, so being mentored by someone who deals directly with customers can be very useful.

Guest speaking at course events

Inviting a senior leader to speak at one of your learning sessions is a fantastic opportunity for participants to learn, first hand, from someone who has already trodden the path they’re taking.

Consider carefully which senior leader you approach to speak on which topic; they should feel comfortable with the subject and be the right person to engage and inspire your delegates.

Also, the simple act of inviting them might flatter them, and therefore increase their buy-in.

Observing/assessing at development sessions

Another way of involving senior leaders is to bring them into the actual learning sessions as observers or, better still, assessors.

Meeting in progress

Their presence will demonstrate to the participants that they, and their professional development, is valued by the organisation. And it’s an excellent way to give that all-important exposure to the whole group, rather than just individuals.

Informal interactions

For example, this might mean inviting senior leaders to join your participants for lunch during one of their workshops.

It’s great to create opportunities for informal chats, which can be just as rewarding as more structured interactions. For example, it gives people a chance to ask senior leaders about their own career path and how they developed into their current role.

Presentations to the board

Asking participants to present to the board can be a powerful way to give individuals exposure to senior leadership.

Team meeting

This could involve presenting on a particular aspect of their work or, if they are part of a senior talent development programme, presenting their personal development plans.

Get a helping hand

We strongly believe in the importance of senior leadership engagement and have plenty of experience in achieving it.

Take advantage of our expertise and discover how we can get your board on board. Call us on 01444 702 701 or email to find out more.

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