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In his article ‘Secrets of the Superbosses’, Sydney Finkelstein argues that the one activity that distinguishes business icons from their peers is their ability to grow talent:

Read the full article ‘Secrets of the Superbosses’ – Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb 2016

Smart organisations have a mature attitude and approach to leadership and talent development; ensuring it is part of their corporate strategy and more importantly their culture.

However, in my experience many well meaning enterprises for developing high potential staff are delegated to an L&D function that is sometimes ill equipped to champion this critical business driver and programmes can become little more than skills training…sometimes in skills that the participants don’t need or more importantly the business doesn’t need!

Purposeful ‘people development’ then becomes a tainted rhetoric that becomes a time bandit for the participants…the organisation’s key resource… your talent.

“Great leaders need to ask 3 questions”

In her TED talk ‘What it takes to be a great leader’ Roselinde Torres says great leaders need to ask three questions:

  1. Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
    [The answer to this question is on your calendar. Who are you spending time with? On what topics? Where are you traveling? What are you reading?]
  2. What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?
    [This question is about your capacity to develop relationships with people that are very different than you…despite all these differences, they connect with you and they trust you enough to cooperate with you in achieving a shared goal. Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels and also of solutions, because you have people that are thinking differently than you are.
  3. Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?
    Great leaders dare to be different. They don’t just talk about risk-taking, they actually do it.

Watch the whole talk

I have a strong personal view that leadership is about creating capacity and that leadership development is not about training managers. You have to be able to manage to lead; you don’t have to lead to manage.

So what does a brilliant leadership programme look like?

Well, first of all let’s not pretend that it can happen in isolation of the business. It has to be something that is owned by the business for the sake of the business. Leadership expertise for your business may not reside in HR – so don’t automatically abdicate ownership of the programme to them. With this in mind I believe there are activities that need to take place outside of the programme as well as inside the programme.

Outside the programme (4 E’s)

Effective process.

The programme needs an effective and preferably transparent selection process which when done well, can raise the bar of performance management across the organisational culture and seriously address diversity. This needs to be part of a robust, scheduled, regular, valued, ‘prepared for’ succession planning process.


It doesn’t need to be a secret! Visible and practical support from executive management is required…it’s what superbosses do after all. I’m not talking about just an introductory speech either. This is about delegates having access to their organisation’s leadership; it’s about the delegates being visible to the executive of the business; it’s proactively having dinner with the executive team, sitting in on Board/executive meetings, job shadowing, mentoring etc.  Giving participants access to senior leaders is part of the process, as is ensuring your senior leaders get to know the individuals taking part in the programme – after all, they need to know who is waiting in the wings to take their place.


Expectation that the programme will deliver something for the business (and through this experience provide excellent development for the participants). This is the real opportunity to ignite and engage the creative and innovative abilities of the delegates…their opportunity to ‘dare to abandon the practice that has made them successful in the past.’ In some organisations, this may be the only faculty for ‘hot housing’ innovation.


Managers of participants need to know what is expected of their reports undertaking a leadership programme, as well as what is expected of them as their line manger. A brilliant programme would also facilitate (if not demand) that the learning is fed back into the business 360° – the manager needs to know to expect this and support it. Leadership programmes are notoriously expensive and can appear elitist…an expectation that delegates will share their learning with their 360° colleagues can exponentially benefit the business environment and shift the organisational culture. (The author led this in a £1.1Bn organisation and witnessed a marked improvement in the overall emotional intelligence of the business and a shift towards a coaching culture).

Inside the programme (it’s about being brilliant)

The programme is…

…brilliant at delivering stuff. I’m reinforcing the expectation here: the delegates are probably already brilliant at delivering stuff…it’s what got them noticed in the first place. So get them to work on stuff for the business as an engine room of entrepreneurial energy (after all – they know how to get things done and they now have executive access, visibility and support to step it up a level). The cohort can become a resourceful community that outlives the programme for many years.  Working on a real business project/problem/issue will force the learning and potentially deliver a return on investment (ROI).

…brilliant at nurturing the ability to think differently about outcomes.  My definition of leadership: ‘leaders are people who create capacity; what they do with that capacity defines them…my favourite is thinking differently.’ It’s been said that managers fear change and leaders make change. Leaders see how things could be and drive to achieve it. My second favourite book ever is ‘The Art of Possibility’ by Ben and Roz Zander. 

To think differently programme delegates need exposure to different perspectives. As a minimum this could be a leadership exchange…but these are often done to similar looking organisations. To make a real difference I would advocate an exponential perspective – visiting leaders from a completely different context and using the experience to inform and then activate a step change (and possibly making a difference…the world needs leaders after all).

…brilliant at networks. I agree with Roselinde Torres’ question above regarding diversity. It’s not the traditional classifications of diversity I’m talking about here (although there is untold resource to harvest by getting this right); it’s more about looking for, valuing and benefitting from difference. There is plenty that can be done to develop this on a programme…and the programme itself can trail blaze this for the organisation.

…brilliantly supportive. A programme worth its’ salt is going to be challenging and demanding of the delegates…certainly not for the faint hearted. Therefore, it goes without saying (but I am saying it) that if you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got – so doing something different requires courage…and it’s so much easier when there’s someone to encourage you. Alongside establishing a supportive climate within the cohort, coaching and mentoring are key elements of any transformational process. Not to mention having a navigator to guide the journey!

I’ll concede two areas of brilliance that could be regarded as skills training and I think are required in a mature approach to leadership development:

  1. Brilliant levels of emotional intelligence. Leadership is about relationships (or at least influence) and the best method I have encountered to develop this is emotional intelligence training. A great company who do this very well are www.jcaglobal.com
  2. Brilliant personal presence. Leaders need to be able to communicate well and be cognisant of their personal presence and status. This can be nurtured with even the most shrinking (but brilliant) violet. For significant, tangible and impressive results here try using www.craftofcommunication.com

I think these are the ingredients of a brilliant leadership development programme.

How well does your organisation do this?

Do we need to work together in your context to get the recipe right for you?

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