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How To Choose a Women’s Leadership Development Program

Though leadership development is a top priority for many businesses and receives more funding than any other type of corporate training, a shocking 71 percent of organizations believe that their leaders are not ready to lead the organization into the future. Why is it that after investing large amounts of money in leadership training, many companies have little results to show for it?

One piece of the puzzle is the talent pipeline. We know that companies with more women in top leadership positions are more agile, innovative and higher-performing, yet many women are locked out of the talent pipeline from the very beginning, with only 72 women for every 100 men getting promoted to manager from an entry-level position. This has a long-term impact on leadership at every level of the organization since there are increasingly fewer women to hire or promote at each subsequent level of management. Examine your organization’s talent strategy to better understand the challenges your organization faces in advancing women and to ensure that you have the right systems in place to identify high-performing women with the potential to emerge as strong leaders.

Once you’ve identified your rising female stars, the next step is to shore up any deficits and add experiences that will help them become well-rounded, successful leaders. In addition to on-the-job stretch assignments and P&L responsibility, you want to provide a focused leadership development program. How do you decide which one? Here are our tips for getting the biggest return on your investment.

Gender Matters — Choose a Women-Only Program

Research shows that in a mixed-gender setting, many women dismiss their experiences and perceived gender differences in an effort to be taken seriously. A women-only program is key to providing a safe space where women can openly share their experiences, explore leadership identity and work through challenges with the support of other women.

Developmental Focus on Critical Leadership Skills

Rather than treating leadership development as a broadly defined category, determine the most important competencies leaders need to thrive in your organization and select a program that provides training opportunities and confidence building for women in these specific areas. To be even more effective, once you’ve identified critical leadership skills, ask the women in your organization where they feel they need the most developmental support to succeed. In KMPG’s Women’s Leadership study, when asked what skills were needed to move more women into leadership roles, 57 percent of study respondents cited leadership training, 56 percent confidence building, 48 percent decision-making, 47 percent networking, and 46 percent critical thinking.

Comprehensive Evaluation and Feedback

A leadership development program should start with feedback that helps learners to understand how they are perceived. A 360-degree assessment is ideal because it collects feedback from all levels of the organization, and helps the learner to focus their efforts on the areas that emerge as common themes. For example, one of our HNS Accelerate participants received feedback from her boss, peers and direct reports that she needed to let go of the details and focus more on strategic initiatives. She was then highly motivated to work on this goal and made significant progress throughout the six-month program.

It’s also valuable to include other assessments that help women increase self-awareness and effectiveness. We use a style assessment and a strategic thinking evaluation and find that our participants improve their communication and critical thinking as a result.

Group Training Combined with Individual Application

Research shows that (on average) after one hour, people retain less than half of the information that’s presented to them. After one day, people forget more than 70 percent of what was taught in training, and after one week, people forget a shocking 90 percent of what they learned. If you’re going to invest valuable resources into a training program, you want to ensure that the information learned stays with your leaders far into the future. While it’s common to present information in a large group setting, the learning doesn’t usually stick unless participants have the chance to apply it to their unique situations. At HNS, we divide women into peer groups after content is delivered to discuss how the content relates to their work environment. For example, when women develop their leadership brand, they practice presenting it to their peer group and get feedback on how to make it stronger. They also strategize about who to share it with and how to work their brand into a conversation.

One-on-One Coaching to Handle Individual Challenges

The 4-6 hours of executive coaching that we offer participants is one of the most highly rated aspects of our programs. And it’s no wonder, since this is time spent focusing on overcoming the hurdles they are facing, given their individual attributes and the culture of their organizations. One of the women in our recent HNS Fast Track program used her coaching time to create a strategy for advancing in her male-dominated firm; another explored how to increase her influence in meetings, despite her introverted style.

Challenging Assignments that Move Women Beyond Their Comfort Zone

We all know that stretching our thinking and doing things we are afraid of catapults our growth. So it’s critical that a leadership development program isn’t simply a fun, bonding experience. Whether it’s being challenged to give difficult feedback to a peer or to examine internal beliefs that are getting in the way of growth, assignments that make participants uncomfortable will net the best results.

Measurable Results

You don’t really know if a program is working unless you measure the results. The development program itself should measure impact, and organizations should measure whether graduates stay with the company longer and get promoted at higher rates. At HNS, participants and their managers rate progress made on development goals. We also measure increases in self-efficacy, which correlates to leadership effectiveness.

Reinforcement of Learning After the Program Ends

As amazing as a development program can be, it’s hard to sustain the momentum once it’s over. Programs that encourage continued participation in a learning community, or provide the option for regular check-ins will have the most lasting impact. We started an alumni group that meets quarterly and includes mini-coaching sessions for members to tap into when they are facing a challenge. Participants find that it keeps them connected to their learning and continually growing.

With an overwhelming array of options available, selecting the best women’s leadership training program can be overwhelming. Done haphazardly, you may find yourself investing large sums of money with little tangible results to show for it. Choosing a program that meets the criteria we’ve shared will provide a framework for the growth and success of not only the women who participate, but also for your entire organization.

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