How to Develop Your Leaders

Capable leadership is undoubtedly one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining an organization which achieves outstanding and sustainable results. In fact, in today’s complex and changing world, the need for strong leadership is greater than ever before.

And yet, 80% of CEOs participating in a recent study rated their efforts to develop leaders throughout their organizations as “less than adequate.” 

Although corporations within the U.S.spend approximately $300 billion per year on training, permanent change will occur only when an organization’s infrastructure elicits, reinforces, and even demands desired leadership behaviors. Research shows that only about 10-20% of the knowledge gained from training actually transfers to the job. The challenge and opportunity is to translate knowledge and skills into practices that actually improve organizational performance.

The purpose of this whitepaper is to offer some guidelines to achieve that objective. The guidelines that follow represent tested and proven ways of making desired leadership behaviors  a permanent part of your organization’s culture.

It should be pointed out, however, that these guidelines are  not a “quick fix” to the challenge of creating stronger organizational leadership. Their implementation actually requires thought, dialogue, and hard work. No endeavor as important as this could require anything

Guideline #1: Focus all leaders on a shared definition and leadership paradigm.

Few companies have attempted to clearly define what they mean by leadership.  Yet, in order to provide excellent and consistent leadership across the organization, it is necessary that all leaders be grounded in a shared understanding of the leadership role. This knowledge forms the foundation upon which to build an excellent leadership team. Its absence means that people perform from personal paradigms (which are usually traditional, self-protective, and reactive) and which may or may not be consistent with the organization you want to create.

There are lots of good definitions and paradigms of leadership. The content of such definitions is less important than selecting a definition and paradigm that can be taught, understood, and embraced by all of the leaders within a given organization. Such a shared definition includes such elements as:

  • Well-articulated organizational philosophy, including mission, ideal future vision, and guiding principles.
  • Definition of leadership and the roles and practices of leaders in a high performance organization.
  • Set of performance expectations and core competencies for supervisors and managers.

These elements represent the kind of shared framework in which leaders should be grounded. It provides a foundation that will create and sustain appropriate leadership behavior over time. All of the other guidelines build upon this foundation.

Guideline #2: Set the example.

As much as we preach to people about what we expect and how we want them to behave, they won’t do so if they perceive that leaders at the top are not doing so. In truth, actions speak louder than words. It’s not what we say that informs people about what is important and how they should behave, but rather how we act. If you want your direct reports to treat people with respect, then you must treat others with respect. If you want people to value quality as much as meeting the production numbers, then they must observe you making that trade off during a difficult moment of decision. If you want them to be open and non-defensive, then you must be open and non-defensive. If you want them to partner with others and be team players, then you must be a team player. If you want them to empower and allow others more authority and involvement, then you must not micro-manage but allow others more authority. If you want your managers to become proactive and focused on the important instead of always reactive and attending to the urgent, then you must find a better balance between the urgent and important.

If you don’t like what you see in your organization’s culture, then you must look into the mirror at your own example. This requires that you continually evaluate yourselves and ask how well you are being a living example of the behavior you want others to model. Many times we are blind to the occasions when we violate our own values. This is especially true when the larger corporate culture reinforces a set of behaviors in that is different than the culture and behaviors you want to instill within your organization. Being a buffer and creating a different culture than the corporate culture requires courage and determination.

#3:   Create a forum for feedback

One powerful way that leaders can hold themselves accountable is to hold regular feedback meetings with employees. The purpose of these meetings is to ensure that their day-to-day practices (as well as policies, procedures, and systems) are in alignment with their espoused values and philosophy.

Although the logistics of such an event can be handled in many ways, here is a simple process. Feedback meetings are scheduled for the entire year, usually every other week but no less often than monthly. A different group of employees (12-20 per session) are invited to attend each meeting. Participants are selected by some random method (alphabetically) and every employee should participate in at least one session a year.

Each session follows a simple structure:

  1. Review the mission, vision, values, etc. of the organization.
  2. Ask: What do you understand or not understand about our mission, vision, values?
  3. What do we, as a leadership team, do that is consistent with our mission, vision, and values?
  4. What do we do, as a leadership team, that is inconsistent with our mission, vision, and values?
  5. What specific changes would you recommend?

A quorum of senior leaders should be present in each session. They keep an on-going “action registry” from these events and make decisions about what and how they can implement suggestions. They are also responsible for communicating to the entire organization the priority items and actions they are taking to make improvements.

In too many companies, people give lip service to a set of values that sound appropriate but to which they lack genuine commitment. The feedback process forces leaders to be serious about their deepest beliefs. As they do so, they gain the trust, credibility, and loyalty of their employees.

 #4: Establish a foundation of stability

Organizations can be characterized at one of three stages of development:


  • Inconsistent results
  • Crises and short-term focused
  • Lack of clear direction and shifting priorities
  • Unclear policies, procedures, systems
  • Lack of team work—“us” vs “them”
  • Frustration and alienation

Stability: (Back to the basics)

  • Consistent performance results
  • Clarity of direction and priorities
  • Well defined policies, procedures, systems
  • Agreement on roles and responsibilities
  • Basic management processes practiced and rewarded (goal setting, performance reviews)

High Performance

  • Excellent performance results
  • Clear mission and values that result in distinctive culture
  • Respect, involvement, empowerment of people
  • Flexibility and innovation
  • Excellent information-sharing systems
  • Design (structure, work flow, etc.) aligned to mission and values

A key to effective leadership is managing differently, depending upon the stage of development of one’s organization. Stability is characterized by clarity, control, and discipline. High performance is characterized by “shared ownership” in the business and empowered employees. Many leaders attempt to achieve a culture of high performance without a foundation of stability.  Stability requires getting out of a reactive, fire-fighting mode through clarity of goals, priorities, roles, and  responsibilities as well as processes and procedures. This results in an efficient operation which forms the foundation for excellence and high performance. Many leaders aspire to high performance but without first putting in place a foundation of discipline and routine.

#5:  Manage proactively from a master plan.

Another guideline to ensure the development and effectiveness of leaders is to make planning part of the infrastructure of the organization. Although this seems to be a simple notion, managers and supervisors in most organizations readily admit they are in a fire-fighting mode, reacting to the demands of the moment rather than acting from a predetermined agenda of what they want to accomplish.

A lack of planning creates a vicious circle from which escape is very difficult.  The less people plan, the more an atmosphere of chaos and urgency reign. And the more urgency and chaos people experience, the more difficult they perceive it to be to take time to plan. The consequence is they are forever attacking symptoms while leaving intact the root causes of organizational problems. Although many factors contribute to a climate of chaos, perhaps the most important is a lack of planning and perception that “we just don’t have the time.”

A secondary consequence of this vicious circle is that it sets leaders up to be overly involved in day to day affairs and to micromanage the business. This practice demoralizes employees and causing them to conclude that they are neither trusted nor able to  make a difference in the organization. Nothing happens without the involvement of the manager or supervisor.

By managing from a plan, leaders pay attention to the “big-picture” and what matters most. They work (to borrow a phrase from Edwards Demming) “on systems not in systems” and thereby gradually eliminate the root causes of problems. Doing this requires a culture which values planning and organizing skills.

#6:  Establish performance requirements and core competencies for each leadership position.

Performance requirements planning provides a clear definition of expected outcomes for a given position as well as identification of those behaviors (best practices) and/or competencies that will lead to those outcomes. It defines the cross bar for individual performance and serves to:

  • Measure individual (leadership) performance.
  • Provide individual performance feedback.
  • Develop personal improvement and progression plans.
  • Create and deliver training programs.

The steps for accomplishing this objective are the following:

  1. Identify key performance areas for a given position (between 4 and 6).
  2. Conduct interviews and/or focus groups with star performers and their managers to identify “best practices” or core competencies related to each key performance area.
  3. Write and administer a 360 survey based on these best practices.
  4. Provide feedback and develop personal improvement plans for each person.
  5. Develop tailored training to meet specific developmental needs.

 Example: Key performance area: Leadership behaviors

Performance Requirements:

  • Analyzes his/her organization’s environment for important trends and changes.
  • Articulates a picture of future in a way that motivates and inspires other people.
  • Guides the team/organization in the development of charter and direction.
  • Develop, communicate and enforce team boundaries (expected results and non-negotiables).

By documenting best practices and core competencies, leaders have a road map for knowing where they are, where they are headed, and how they will get there.

#7:  Provide feedback and create a personal development plan for each leader.

Once performance requirements are clear, it is essential that leaders, at all levels of the organization, be measured against those requirements. One of the most effective means of feedback is the 360 degree survey which utilizes many different data points (boss, peers, direct reports) to assess how well someone is performing on critical leadership behaviors. People improve when they “know the score.” Although intimidating, initially, most people appreciate objective data when it helps them better understand themselves and know in which areas they can make improvements.

More senior leaders should meet with each of their subordinates to assess their strengths and weaknesses (from survey feedback) and then work together to create a plan to help them overcome weaknesses and gain those competencies required to succeed in their position. The plans that are developed should not be reviewed once a year, but should be a working document always within reach and referenced during many one-on-one meetings. In fact, they should form the basis of much of the dialogue that occurs between a boss and his/her direct reports.

#8:  Hold regular personal accountability interviews.

The personal accountability interview is a key tool for building new leadership practices into the infrastructure of the organization. It is a formal meeting between a leader and each direct report in order to review and help them improve their performance. The meeting has two major objectives. The first objective focuses on the performance of the subordinate, how they are doing against their performance requirements, goals, metrics, and, in general, in their management and leadership roles. This represents an opportunity for the leader to hold people accountable and also provide them with the resources and support they need in order to succeed. It is a time to make sure that people are using their time wisely and making good business decisions.

The second objective of  a PAI focuses on the development of the subordinate. The leader plays the role of mentor by providing information or training in such areas as the strategy and direction of the business, the role of leaders in a high performance organization, behavioral expectations, etc. It is a time to create and monitor the personal development plan to be sure the individual is making continual improvements in their performance and moving ahead in his/her career. Most importantly, it represents an opportunity to listen, understand, and learn about the subordinate, how they are doing and what they need in their on-going development.

#9:  Write a “Team Member Letter”

The purpose of this letter is to ensure understanding and agreement between an individual and his/her leader about the individual’s job. (In a team environment, the letter may be written and shared with the entire team rather than just the leader.) The team member writes the letter and gives it to the leader for review. The two of them then sit down together to discuss the contents and make sure they are in agreement. Within the letter, the team member writes his/her understanding of the following areas:

  1.  The leader’s role and responsibilities.
  2.  The team member’s role and responsibilities.
  3.  The goals of the team and team member including performance standards to judge success.
  4.  Major obstacles to fulfilling responsibilities.
  5.  List of what the team leader and/or company do that help and what they do that hinder the team member from carrying out their responsibilities.
  6. List of what the team member feels they need (resources, training, support, information) to successfully carry out their responsibilities.

The letter becomes a “contract” between the team member and leader and basis for the team leader to work with the member on their development.

#10:  Manage as teams.

Another guideline for improving the capability of leaders is to create and accomplish your work as  members of teams. Teams provide an opportunity for much greater integration and coordination. The benefits are often very obvious among people who do the core work of the organization. However, they are just as significant for an organization’s leaders. Leaders should act as a team by setting common goals, metrics, and meeting regularly to develop plans and assess how they are doing.  Thinking and working as leadership teams overcomes the problems of fragmentation, duplication of efforts, poor communication, turf battles, a narrow perspective, and lack of ownership that pervade traditional organizations. It helps leaders identify and work together to accomplish shared, long-term objectives rather than expend too much time and  energy fighting fires.

#11: Hold regular discussion sessions.

Discussion sessions are one to two hour blocks of time in which leaders come together to learn and support each other in their development. The session may include some structured time in the form of a mini-lecture, exercise, or simulation and other time which is unstructured for the purpose of discussion and application of the theme of the meeting. These sessions are less formal than training because they are designed for application and internalization of the principles discussed. The sessions represent an opportunity to review and reinforce critical principles from past training, such as empowerment, listening skills, or conflict resolution. Numerous people can take the leadership in designing and facilitating such sessions. In fact, the more people involved, the more people learn, and the more valuable they become. I would recommend that they be held regularly, at least monthly, and that they be required for people to attend.

 #12: Design systems to support high performance leadership behaviors.

Of course, leaders will not demonstrate high performance behaviors if the systems of the organization impede or fail to reward them from doing so. One of the most important systems to evaluate is compensation. Can the compensation system be better managed and/or designed to reward facilitators and managers for achieving results and modeling high performance behaviors? How is it currently aligned to do so and how might it need to be altered? Likewise, is there a recognition system in place which reinforces people for modeling the organization’s values or achieving outstanding results? Do leaders receive information in an accurate and timely way? And so on. A task of the executive team is to examine each of these systems and to determine the extent to which they are accomplishing their intended purpose.


As stated in the introduction, the key to changing leadership behavior is altering the infrastructure of the organization to elicit and reinforce desired behaviors. It is not enough to share theory and knowledge, however correct it may be. Old habits are hard to break, especially when those habits are reinforced, albeit unintentionally, by cultural norms which are contrary to new values and behaviors.

There is nothing sacred about the guidelines outlined above. They represent the kinds of actions that can build new leadership habits and norms into the organization. Culture change must start at the top. Not only must senior leaders clarify the kinds of practices they expect of themselves, managers, and supervisors, but they must create the processes and methods to maintain a consistent message and reinforce desired behaviors.

Sometimes we are hesitant to engage in the kinds of behavior described above because of the time it requires. We allow the urgent to rule the important. However, by not committing this kind of time to developing our subordinates, we fail to play a leadership role. We become overly involved in operational issues rather than providing guidance and direction and developing the long-term capability of the organization.

  Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in leadership, team development, and personal and organizational change. The tools and methods Dr. Allen offers have helped hundreds of companies, and tens of thousands of people, transform the ways they work and live.  To learn more about his consulting and training services, visit To order a copy of his new book The Hero’s Choice, go to or any local bookstore.

Center consultants are experts in leadership, teams and organizational change. Our programs have been used in hundreds of companies and we’ve certified over 800 internal and external trainers from around the world to use them.

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  1. Very good article with practical strategies for developing leaders. Thanks Center.

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