After many years of designing and delivering a Leadership Acceleration Program in partnership with a leader in the industry, I have come to appreciate 6 key factors that can determine HiPo leadership program success.
As a leadership development thought leader, I have been asked many times what makes a HiPo leadership program succeed. After many years of designing and delivering a program in partnership with a leader in the Med Tech industry, I have come to appreciate 6 key factors that can determine HiPo leadership program success. I call them Design Factors and Motivating Factors. Design factors relate to how to design and integrate the program, and motivating factors relate to how to keep participants engaged and motivated.
Within this article, I have included personal insights from Arathi Sethumadhavan and Gerard Torenvliet, two program participants and team leaders from past programs that I have facilitated. Their crisp insights mirror the feedback from other program alumni on how these factors positively impacted their leadership development.
There are three design factors that I have found to most directly contribute to the program effectiveness and outcomes:
- Management sponsorship and involvement
- Use of a project as a learning laboratory
- One-on-one coaching
1 – Management Sponsorship and Involvement
By design, the senior-most leader of the organizational unit is the management sponsor and is personally involved in setting and communicating program expectations with participants. This leader establishes the project focus, challenges participants to operate outside their comfort zone, and encourages participants to take intelligent risks and to fail fast.
The personal interest of the sponsor in the development of the next generation of leadership connects the program investment to the success of the business. Other senior management team leaders serve to provide project feedback, teach leadership principles, play devil’s advocate, and help the team to network within the organization.
Arathi, made this observation about her team’s involvement with senior management during her program:
“This program certainly broadened our professional network both inside and outside of my organization. We were able to have in-person meetings with some of the top executives of the company and learn how they approach problems. We also learned an important lesson which is – it is not enough to just have a great idea but you should have the right backup for that idea to materialize into a solution. We learned about the art of persuasion by illustrating the business impact, presenting the message in a format that is relevant and personalized for the stakeholder and using our network to gain credibility and to influence senior leaders and decision makers.”
2 – Team Project as a Learning Laboratory
I submit that HiPo leadership development requires a hands-on project experience. Otherwise the program is only theoretical. The solution developed is often less important than what they learn about themselves under the pressure of the program and by working in a high-performing team.
During the hands-on project, participants have the opportunity to apply and practice leadership principles and behaviors and get feedback from their peers and senior leaders. It is a laboratory of sorts, where participants can try new things and even fail in a safe space outside of the observation of their bosses.
As the project becomes more personal for the participants, it is not unusual for them to invest many hours a week above their regular work responsibilities. This project intensity provokes the personal crucible necessary for real leadership growth to occur.
Gerard’s reflections on the project mirror the comments of his program peers about the impact of a project on leadership learning:
“At the end of the day, we spent more time on our team project than on anything else. Our sponsor handed an important business problem to a group of thirteen high performers, and asked us to present to the VP on his behalf in six months. We were all extraordinarily motivated to crush it, so we invested and worked hard. Without knowing it, the project forced us use what we learned in the other parts of the program to do the best job we could.”
Arathi readily remembers how the project impacted her leadership development:
“The team project acted as a glue that brought everything that we learned from the classroom training and the personalized coaching together. It was an opportunity to practice what we were taught. I was the team leader during the last phase of the team project and I was able to apply some of the learnings immediately, such as capitalizing on the unique strengths of the team members to create the final project presentation to the Executives and tailoring the presentation content to the communication styles of the audience.”
3 – One-on-One Coaching
My observation is that up to 50% of the program value comes through the confidential one-on-one coaching provided by an executive coach. The coach helps the participants in a very personalized way to make the shift from their manager mindsets and behaviors to those of a leader.
Gerard’s experience reflects the importance of the coaching experience:
“For me, coaching was the most transformative part of the program. I leaned into the opportunity to learn about myself and my potential to lead; I came out with new skills and frameworks and an utterly new mindset about life and work. I came out more confident and more humble, better able to understand and handle myself in complex leadership situations. I learned to keep a detailed journal of my days—a practice I keep in modified form today—and had the opportunity to self-reflect in the presence of a professional twice per month. Invaluable for those who will lean in and be vulnerable.”
The 3 Design Factor Elements Work Together
Arathi shares her reasons why several of the Design Factor elements utilized provided a richer development experience over traditional learning.
“All the elements worked in unison to impact my learning. I don’t think LAP would be complete without any one of the elements. The assessments provided me more insights about my strengths, limitations, and communication style. The workshops introduced me to various concepts such as business models and trust formula which are integral to forming business leadership skills. Working with a career coach (a psychologist) helped me become more intuitive to understanding my own as well as others’ needs. Finally, the team project helped to bring everything I learned in the program together.”
Many HiPo programs fail because participants don’t stay engaged. The Design Factor elements may be present but participants are not inspired or motivated to take full advantage of the program. Since motivation is a personal thing, I asked past participants of the LAP to provide insights on what motivated them to stay engage in the program. After sifting through responses and conducting follow up interviews, three consistent Motivating Factor elements surfaced:
- Personal Development Challenge
- Perceived Organizational Benefit
- Personalized Learning
1 – Personal Development Challenge
- Participants came into the program with their eyes wide open. Participants’ managers explained the rigors of the program and communicated the learning and growth expectations. These expectations were reinforced at the kick off meeting by the program sponsor and balanced with the unique growth opportunity presented to the participants.
- Participants had choice. They were invited to participate but given the choice of opting out if they could not make the commitment to the program. The participants who agreed to the rigor were more committed to their learning and to the other participants.
- Participants perceived a personal development challenge. They sensed that they might be in over their head, but being the HiPo’s they are, relished the challenged and made personal adaptations to participate. They knew they were being stretched because most of what they were learning and experiencing was outside their comfort zone.
2 – Organizational Benefit
- Both learning exercises and the project had real and immediate application. Program content was immediately applied to the program project as well as day to day work responsibilities. This further reinforced the value of the program and strengthened their commitment to the program and the organization.
- The program sponsor selected a project aligned with the business strategy and therefore participants were motivated to help the business.
- The project solution focused on creating some form of value. Participants knew their project solution could be used by decision makers to solve real business issues or provide the organization with new business intelligence.
Arathi explains the organizational benefit in this way:
“Our VP assigned us a very compelling project as part of this program, which was relevant not just to our organization but to the industry as a whole, and this was to come up with a patient engagement strategy. As part of the project, the team constructed a business model which would be lucrative to the organization and in alignment with the directions a few of the business units were already taking. The research that our team did also shed light on the siloed approach undertaken by various business units and the need to come up with a cohesive strategy.”
3 – Personalized Learning
- Self-awareness. Without self-awareness, a leader cannot understand their strengths or weaknesses. They are blind to how they show up, how they impact others, and how they react to new ideas or pushback from others. In a phrase, the leader may not have the emotional intelligence to lead effectively in today’s workplace.
Gerard recalled his blind spots coming into his program:
“Prior to [the program] I tended to script my meetings and control them strongly, and in cases where my agenda failed, the productivity of the meeting went down or the original purpose was even lost. I gained confidence in my strengths, and awareness of my weaknesses, so I can go into leadership situations with less scripting and more flexibility. I’m in the moment, adjusting and optimizing on the fly. As a result, every leadership interaction I have is more productive. I have learned to be more confident in my leadership, so I can be more present and in the moment as a leader.”
Putting the assessments at the beginning of the program was key. It helped participants understand that leadership was made of specific behaviors that they could understand and master, and that awareness of who they are was the key. Consider Arathi’s thoughts on the value of her increased self-awareness:
“The assessments provided me more insights about my strengths and limitations as well as my communication style and being cognizant of others’ communication style. This has since helped me in various facets including delivering presentations to listening to the needs of clients to leading diverse teams.”
- “Just-in-time” content and tools. This content and the tools came just when participants needed them to navigate the project and to apply in their day jobs to reduce burden and stress. If you want leadership to emerge through the program, you need to force different behaviors in their current work roles. Gerard’s experience was exceptional but not uncommon during the program:
“Prior to [the program] it took me 50-60 hours a week to perform my job, and LAP added on another 20-30 hours with no reduction of my everyday job duties. Just as the burden of [the program] began to set in, we received just-in-time training on delegation. By the end of [the program] I had reduced the amount of time it took to do my regular job to about 25 hours per week, and I was actually dedicating up to 35 hours to [my program] – because the work we were doing was so fascinating. I’ve gained 30 hours a week for new purposes. I’ve got time to be more strategic, I’ve continued to better leverage my team, and I have achieved a level of work-life balance that I didn’t think was possible before.”
- Blended learning modalities. A variety of learning approaches were used giving participants different ways to engage in the learning and thereby maintaining more interest. Assessments, classroom workshops and group discussion, flipped classroom, outside reading, interviewing content experts and senior leaders, peer feedback, video clips, leveraging organizational resources, guest speakers, project interaction, personalized coaching, team and sub-team leadership opportunities…
One director summed up the success of the program in this way, “The program does in 6-8 months what might take several years of normally paced development to accomplish.” Others have called the program an “applied” MBA. In fact, some participants entered the program having already earned MBA degrees and commented that they believed more real world leadership learning took place in the this HiPo program than from their MBA studies!
Consider Gerard’s reflection on his self-awareness journey:
“I’m a much better listener, and I’ve learned to lead by listening. Looking back on the ‘me’ who entered [the program, I always wanted to be right and to be the expert. I didn’t listen to understand so much as to find an opening for me to prove how smart I thought I was. [The program] taught me that active listening – really hearing someone else’s words – is only the start, and that real leadership means listening and then having the openness to work with your conversation partner together to build a new and better perspective together. Today I am more interested in being curious to learn what others think than in trying to demonstrate what I think.”
Arathi and Gerard’s reflections and insights are representative of the leadership growth of nearly 160 other HiPo leaders completing the acceleration program over the last 7 years. Little wonder that the program is repeated year after year accelerating the leadership capability of HiPo technical and management professionals alike. To date, approximately 75% of participants have been promoted to new roles or taken on more visible responsibilities. Some have been accelerated to general management staff level positions or promoted to new roles in other work units in North America or in overseas operations. Turnover among program alumni has been remarkably low with only 7 of the 160 participants leaving the organization to pursue other opportunities.
Many HiPo leadership programs start off with the right intentions but fail either in terms of design effectiveness or in keeping participants engaged and interested in their leadership development. While there are many factors which may contribute to a program’s overall success the weighting of these factors is not equal. When investing in HiPo Leadership Programs, it is advisable to consider the six factors with the highest payoff discussed in this article.
About the Author
Chief Learning Officer
Dave has unique capabilities in training facilitation and developmental coaching across mid-sized and global organizations. Previously, Dave was the chief learning officer with RSM McGladdrey. He also has extensive experience as a director of human resources and recruiting at Arthur Anderson, Inc. Dave has an M.S. in Instructional Technology from Utah State University.
Arathi Sethumadhaven is a Senior Research Director at Core Human Factors, Inc., helping healthcare startups to large medical and pharmaceutical companies design safer and effective products.
Gerard Torenvliet is a Senior Engineering Manager in the CRHR Human Factors and User Experience at Medtronic and is directly involved in leading the application of human factors methods to the development of innovative medical devices that alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.
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