Building an In-House Leadership
Development Program

Once you have clarity on the leadership skill sets your institution is seeking -- and a commitment to look beyond the "usual suspects" when identifying future leaders -- the next challenges involve offering meaningful opportunities for your institution's "stylistic invisibles" to become visible and providing an intentional and deliberate process for developing your high-potentials as future leaders. There are three critical steps in achieving these aims:

  • Create a robust peer network of emerging leaders within your institution
  • Adopt a "proving ground" approach by engaging emerging leaders in the real work of the institution
  • Incentivize and reward "deep mentoring" at all levels of your organization

Several institutions have taken steps in this direction, but much of the most innovative and effective work on in-house leadership development over the past decade has been done outside the walls of higher education. The corporate sector, particularly, has become increasingly alert to its aging workforce and the threat that a leadership crisis presents to an organization's profit and sustainability.

For this reason, we reached out not only to one of the leading higher ed experts -- Tamara Freeman, director of talent management and HR strategy for the University of Notre Dame -- but also to Kimberly (Kim) Eberbach, vice president of human resources at Independence Blue Cross, a Philadelphia-based insurance firm. Independence Blue Cross has conducted a rigorous leadership development program for five years, seeing considerable early success in developing and harnessing in-house talent.

Here is what Eberbach and Freeman advise.

Create a Peer Network of Emerging Leaders

"The critical step is to create a peer network within your organization. Build a community of practice, in which your people understand that they can leverage each other."
Kim Eberbach, Independence Blue Cross

This means developing cohort groups of emerging leaders and providing both programming for them (in the form of seminars, workshops, or Q&A panels) and structured opportunities for them to coach each other. Eberbach and Freeman stress the importance of ensuring that cohorts are both cross-functional and representative of different generations and degree of experience; effective cohorts will assemble leaders who operate at similar levels within the institution (for example, separate tracks for front-line managers, middle managers, and senior leaders).

While the University of Notre Dame launched all three tracks together, Independence Blue Cross took a different approach aimed at fostering a stronger practice of mentoring throughout their organization. "We made a strategic decision," Eberbach notes, "of starting with the senior-director level, those managers who 10 years from now will need to take on top leadership roles. We coached them in developing a network of peer leaders, and then gave them the tools and support to begin building a bench of leadership talent among their staff, mentoring their direct reports. This improves the whole organization."

Whether you have the resources to launch a multi-track effort or begin at one level and then scale up, design the program with great attention to instructional design. (In fact, this program does not need to be organized solely by human resources or by the office of the president; leverage those individuals within your institution who have expertise with instructional design and facilitation.)

Make sure your leadership development program includes:

  • A long-term series designed to develop each cohort as an effective network
  • Problem-solving assignments
  • Expert speakers and mentorship lunches

"Programs packaged like a mini-certificate are much more effective than one-off offerings or events," Freeman advises. For example, the University of Notre Dame offers a program called "Leading with Impact," a series of one-day classes over an eight-month period. The series is facilitated by executive education faculty from the business school, and between classes, small groups work together on problem-solving assignments.

Internal candidates for guest speakers include both faculty from the business school and senior leaders at your institution (the CFO, the provost, the president). Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies LLC, cautions, however, against using guest speakers to just speak; he recommends instead setting up structured mentorship lunches. "These need not be scripted," he suggests. "The real learning takes place when up-and-coming leaders have the opportunity to ask the tough questions, whether anonymously on index cards or face-to-face. Invite them to ask senior leaders about their greatest challenge, the biggest mistake they've made, their biggest ethical dilemma they've faced, what they learned in that situation, what worked, what they regret doing."

Adopt a "Proving Ground" Approach

Eberbach, Freeman, Goldstein, and Sanaghan all concur on the importance of establishing a "proving ground" for emerging leaders. "Ultimately, you don't become a leader by reading about a challenge or discussing a challenge but by addressing a challenge," Goldstein advises. "Use real projects and assignments as leadership experiences."

"Don't create a simulation; engage your leadership cohorts in real work in service to your organization."
Kim Eberbach, Independence Blue Cross

To establish a "proving ground" for future leaders, and to build capacity within your organization for meeting adaptive challenges, Eberbach and Freeman recommend:

  • Create cross-functional teams and task forces to address real issues facing your institution
  • Provide these teams with clear guidance as to the desired outcomes of their efforts
  • Encourage the task force to talk about cultural barriers to overcoming or addressing the challenge -- what is working in your institution's culture, and what isn't?
  • Have them work together to conduct the necessary research and identify the resources that will be needed to confront a given challenge; a task force should interview stakeholders across the institution, synthesize findings, and provide recommendations to senior leaders

Freeman refers to this approach as creating "mini, in-house consulting teams" within your institution. They need to be established at all levels of your institution, from a high-level student retention task force to a sustainability committee to shorter-lived teams that are called together to tackle immediate problems. At the University of Notre Dame, for instance, the manager of the dual career assistance program wanted to determine how to use social media to help place spouses; a team was assembled in-house to research the opportunities and make specific recommendations.

At Independence Blue Cross, leadership teams add a "teach back" step. "Require small groups of four to teach something that impacts a particular office or a set of front-line staff," Eberbach suggests. "They can 'teach back' a skill or an approach they have learned. This is how you build the bench; as you strengthen a cohort of developing leaders, you involve them in developing and mentoring the next set."

Reward and Incentivize "Deep Mentoring"

Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group, suggests that as a critical strategy for encouraging talent development at all levels of your institution, deep mentoring involves:

  • Encouraging senior leaders to mentor not only their direct reports but also the "up-and-comers" who may be two or three reporting levels below them
  • Ensuring that mentoring relationships cross boundaries (such as age, race, or gender) -- this will help to avoid "comfortable cloning" and will build a more diverse leadership pool
  • Making mentoring a key item in performance review for supervisors at all levels of the organization

"If you want real, meaningful mentoring to occur, you need to set the expectation that mentoring is a core job responsibility. This needs to be expressed in job descriptions, hiring and training practices, and in performance review."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group