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Executive Development Programs: Unique Perspectives

This article was recently published in’s monthly publication, Talent Management Excellence Essentials, and was written by Michael Brainard, CEO of Brainard Strategy, and James Hin, Client Management Consultant.

Effective executive development programs allow executives to develop a sense of introspectiveness and instill a “self-coaching” component to their own processes. Ultimately, this will allow these executives to consistently engage in genuine self-critique and self-development.

These initiatives are competency-based with an application focus. Although many leadership programs commonly focus on instructor led sessions, an equally important factor is peer/cohort engagement in sharing of best practices, experiential exercises, simulations, and online social learning.

Through obtaining the perfect “blend” of these practices, one is able to develop the “secret sauce.” This article examines best practices, explores new thinking in design and implementation, and discusses the return on investment of meaningful and measureable executive development initiatives

Executive dev article1

Best Practices

Many executive development initiatives focus only on “closing” developmental opportunities, which is not a thorough approach to true executive development. Executives are often complex thinkers who have some level of experience in the world of “practiced leadership.” Despite the angles of some best-selling books, one has to be willing to face all elements of oneself to truly gain the ability to self-coach and develop. While I understand the popularity of the 70-20-10 model (Lombardo 4), taking it further, in all parts of that “pie-chart” one must learn to identify “triggers”, or external and internal cues, that lead to a given behavior or thought pattern. Once that cue is identified the leader can develop “choices” to behave, or what Collins referred to as “disciplined thought” (1). From there the leader can sense the impact, intended and unintended, of his or her leadership action(s). The leader can then be self-correcting, and/or “double back” to win or recover a given situation.

We as designers need to resist the urge to believe “it must be built here.” We must not only help executives integrate competencies that have been developed internally to an organization but we must also help them integrate competencies that have an industry or social impact. A full functioning executive is often a “boundary spanner”- meaning they have many internal and external stakeholders and that their actions often impact an entire industry, not just the organization. The key is to develop executives as leaders within the organization, leaders within the industry and leaders among their peers. For a deeper look at executive competencies, I direct you to one of the best recent articles on the topic, “Return on Leadership” (Zender et al. 3). In their article, the authors consolidate many interviews and assert a very robust competency model for executive performance.


Executive dev article2The ideal executive development process involves learning through multiple modalities, a combination of executive assessments, social and action learning and instructor led sessions.

Executive assessments are used to identify growth opportunities and take a data-oriented approach to self-awareness. Specific, constructive feedback is critical to individual success and to the company’s ability to achieve its goals for the future. When managers receive feedback from others, they expect to use this information to change or improve. Because these assessments and feedback are comprehensive, clear, and relevant to managers’ jobs, results are readily translated into actions towards improved effectiveness. In addition, individual development plans enable each executive to target specific strengths to leverage and specific weaknesses to address. These plans act as a roadmap for their leadership journey and provide a framework for them to be coached to success.

In addition to assessments and individual development plans, the powerful combination of social learning, action learning assignments, and instructor led modules creates awareness of strengths and skill gaps while simultaneously developing a social network that sustains growth and allows for application of new leadership techniques in daily practice. Instructor led sessions take the executives through a series of modules drawing on material that is based off of theory, research and years of experience, delivered by an expert facilitator and tailored specifically to the executive audience.

Social learning is promoted through the use of an online learning portal. Between instructor led modules participants access the portal and develop a community through online discussions, Q&A with their facilitator, pre and post homework assignments, activities and access to resources, including white papers, articles, recommended books and videos on related topics for “fast facts.”

Finally, action-learning projects not only promote individual and cohort growth, but organizational growth as well. These projects are mission specific strategic initiatives developed in conjunction with the company’s senior executives that leaders work together in peer groups to accomplish. Their skills are stretched individually and as a team as they work to achieve these highly visible and strategic goals. At the culmination of the development program, each team presents the results of their projects to other executives and/or board members as appropriate.

This innovative approach to executive development is anticipated to drive growth at three levels within the organization:

• Individual Growth: Develop executive presence and leadership acumen while increasing leverage and scale of the leaders throughout the company.

• Cohort Growth: Greater networked peer learning and shared learning experience where leaders can draw from each other’s knowledge and experience.

• Organizational Growth: Create a culture of consistent language and practices around leadership and apply leadership techniques to strategic objectives to drive execution

Return on Investment (ROI)

Executives impact performance, engagement and culture in all cases, good and bad. For this reason, ROI in terms of executive development actually becomes relatively easy. Following the 3 Kirkpatrick model (2) as well as simple ROI calculations, the HR leader is able to demonstrate impact when providing custom, thoughtful, innovative, and integrated development. We work together with HR leaders and their companies to define organizational performance metrics that ought to be impacted by both negative and positive executive leadership behaviors, such as throughput metrics, financial metrics, and customer metrics.

Engagement has consistently been shown to positively correlate with organizational performance (Kruse 5). When calculating ROI we are able to measure the level of engagement of those employees following certain leaders. That engagement is yet another indicator of effective executive leadership performance. Additionally, when a cohort of developing executives begin to practice better decision making, more inclusivity, more coaching and development and better relationships one can begin to measure the impact on a culture over time. Return on leadership development is handled analytically and impact variables are to be defined in the specific language of the organization. When these things are accomplished measuring ROI becomes easy.

“Behr EXCELerate, through Brainard Strategy, has enabled our executives across the continent to work closer together and connect at a much deeper level. In working collaboratively on the final action learning projects, our leaders are operating at an even higher level in bringing bring innovation and new business ideas to further advance our business. I am very proud of the change that continues to take place at Behr.” Wynnie Phipps, Sr. Director, People Services Behr Process Corp


Effective executive development is not only about building strengths or development opportunities. Effective executive development is about crafting self-coaching capability. The most effective executive development comes from a combination of development modalities in the form of instructor led sessions, multi-rater and introspective assessments, social learning and action learning. This approach drives growth among the individual, the cohort and the organization while bringing the organization a positive return on investment that can not only be felt financially, but has long term effects on an organization’s culture and performance. PM-ITM

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