The recipe for the best leadership development programme

What do you need from a Leadership Development Programme?

Are you looking for a leadership development programme in the UK? With so many executive courses, classes, and business coaches on offer, it’s tough to decide which programme suits your needs. 

I’m a big believer in peer group sessions, and I’ve seen managing directors, CEOs, and founders build their leadership capabilities by learning with and from other business leaders. This format is what sets MD2MD apart from other leadership development programmes, and I’m proud of its success. 

The best leaders are ready to learn, and the best leadership development programmes must support senior professionals to improve their leadership and management skills. This requires commitment from both sides — but there are certain ingredients that make for a great programme. 

Here I’ll outline the 9 key ingredients of the best leadership development programmes. These include:

  1. Real-world problem solving
  2. The ability to share in confidence
  3. The freedom to learn from challenging perspectives
  4. Access to insight from professional speakers
  5. No distraction from the day-to-day or outside world
  6. A demonstrable return on investment (ROI)
  7. Mutually beneficial outcomes
  8. Aligned with the core challenges of leadership
  9. Going beyond business

#1: Real-world problem solving

Entrepreneurs have achieved their success by taking action. Theory has a place, as do mental models. But as the University of Chicago has discovered, down-to-earth business leaders will learn better when theory is combined with a hands-on approach. Regardless of age or experience, learning is easier when it’s combined with doing

Rather than just teaching abstract concepts and frameworks, the best leadership development programmes will bring real-world scenarios into play. These practical case studies will get leaders to feel the consequences of their decisions, but also to relate to each other’s challenges in a genuine way. 

In addition, when you get a group of leaders together to discuss a real problem, the individual at the heart of the story will benefit from centuries of combined knowledge and experience. It’s a powerful exercise for all involved — those who are collaborating to solve the problem, and those who are learning what to do in challenging circumstances.

#2: The ability to share in confidence

It’s important for leadership development programmes to be open and collaborative — especially when adopting the peer group format, but also in one-on-one coaching sessions. In order for this to occur, group attendees must have confidence that their challenges won’t be heard outside those four walls. 

We also believe that leadership development programmes should be careful about potential conflicts of interest within the group. 

For example, MD2MD avoids having material investors, customers, and suppliers in the same group. Otherwise, participants are likely to hold back on sharing sensitive information — perhaps abstaining from discussions about supply chain issues, profit margin increases, or unsustainable staff turnover. 

#3: The freedom to learn from challenging perspectives

Sometimes leaders settle into a “way of doing things” that doesn’t help themselves or the business that they represent. For example, leaders can get bogged down in micromanagement, make hiring decisions too quickly, or spend too much energy on non-critical decisions.

In most cases, these types of bad habits are why a leader will seek to improve their skills in the first place, but it’s often a shock to hear direct and challenging perspectives from a coach or a group of peers. The best leadership development programmes will guide members through this process of giving and receiving constructive criticism, and help them get value from alternative viewpoints. 

#4: Access to insight from professional speakers

At the time of writing, videos on the official TED Talks YouTube channel have been watched 1,513,258,512 times. The channel has almost 15,000,000 subscribers. Why? Because people are inspired by watching and listening to experts who share wisdom through compelling stories. 

The best leadership development programmes build this value into their structure. Professional speakers will motivate members in a way that peer group discussions can’t. And taking a deep dive into a specialist topic will open up the leader’s mind to new ways of approaching problems. 

#5: No distraction from the day-to-day or outside world

Leadership development demands a commitment from senior professionals to carve out time in their day, week, or month to consciously learn. However, entrepreneurs tend to have an “always-on” mindset; their brains constantly whirring to find the next opportunity. This can be distracting. 

Furthermore, the very nature of being Managing Director or CEO means that you’re busy. People want – or need – to meet to discuss projects, people, and problems. You’ll need to sign contracts, plan growth strategies, fight fires, and approve new hires – as well as be the face of the business and the chief networker. Leaders have a full schedule, and it’s why they often need a personal assistant. 

The best leadership development programmes will take the leader out of his or her day-to-day mindset, in order to take a step back and see the wood for the trees. To achieve this, programme members need to be isolated from messages, emails, and calls for the duration of the session. They also need to be consistent and reliable in their attendance; prioritising strategic learning over other tasks for that time. 

At MD2MD, we believe that leaders need time and space to become great. This why we also run an event called Retreat to Advance. This allows leaders to physically remove themselves from their familiar surroundings for a full weekend — in order to reflect, think strategically, and develop their vision. 

#6: A demonstrable Return on Investment (ROI)

The best leadership development programmes provide a positive Return on Investment (ROI) for their members. But how can this be tangibly demonstrated? 

Our members have noted benefits such as better decision-making processes, the improved ability to lead a motivated and productive team, and the capability to retain unstable contracts. They’ve also noted an increased personal energy and enthusiasm, and a more balanced strategic mindset. 

Studies have proved that better leadership equals better business performance. But it’s understandably tough to trace a brilliant decision back to a session 12 months prior. Furthermore, it’s hard to know how “a spring in your step” raised your game, what the milestones were, or when it started to impact people.

I have a simple formula for understanding ROI from a leadership development programme. Our members tend to run medium-to-large businesses with dozens or hundreds of staff. As a result, their major decisions tend to be worth thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of pounds. 

To justify the membership costs, you only need to improve team performance by 1% — or make just one key decision better every year. 

#7: Mutually-beneficial outcomes

A leadership development programme must have mutually-beneficial outcomes for everyone involved. Naturally, the primary aim is for members to gain valuable insights and to learn how to become better leaders. But the programme organisers must constantly be looking, listening, and learning from the experiences of their attendees — in order to improve the programme and add to their knowledge. 

Members must also see the mutually-beneficial outcome between themselves and the people in their team. If the business invests in its leader(s), there is likely to be advantages for productivity, efficiency, morale, and growth. It’s important for leaders to talk to their team about these benefits – and to understand the positive impact that better leadership can have on the organisation as a whole. 

#8: Aligned with the core challenges of leadership

Earlier in this article, I mentioned the importance of tackling real-world problems. But for leadership development programmes to be effective and valuable, these problems need to be aligned with the core challenges of leading a business in the modern world. 

In my downloadable eBook, Scaling Your Business Growth: The Ultimate Guide, I highlight the key growing pains for business leaders. These common pains include:

  • Management and company culture
  • Recruitment and staff retention
  • Sales and marketing strategy
  • Brand positioning and identity
  • Value proposition and offers
  • Product portfolio management
  • Operations and administration
  • Customer service and support
  • Information technology
  • Outsourcing and partnerships
  • Supply chain management
  • Revenues, profits, and cash flow
  • Funding and financing growth
  • Mergers, acquisitions, and exits

Leadership programmes, courses, and coaches need to tap into these vital pain points and get a handle on what the most pertinent problem is for each group and/or each individual member at any given time. 

#9: Think & Talk Beyond Business

The final ingredient in our recipe for creating the best leadership development programme is to think and talk beyond business

This doesn’t mean breaking professional boundaries — instead it refers to acknowledging the human aspects of being a leader. Making regular high-pressure decisions takes a toll. No matter how successful we become in entrepreneurship, we all suffer from some levels of stress and/or insecurity. 

Whilst leadership development programmes aren’t the place to air all of these personal issues, the discourse of a programme must acknowledge them as a challenge to effective leadership – and train members to manage the pressure in the heat of the day-to-day. No programme should assume that its members act like corporate robots, regardless of seniority or experience. 

Final takeaways…

I believe that the ingredients listed in this article come together as the best recipe for a leadership development programme. Leaders need to be inspired by expert speakers, but they also need to practice collaborative problem-solving with real-world challenges that relate to running a business. 

This, combined with confidentiality and the freedom to give (and take) challenging perspectives makes for a dynamic learning environment – one which is proven to boost a leader’s capabilities.

* MD2MD involves challenging and supportive confidential conversations with fellow business leaders, helping members achieve greater success by sharing the highs and lows of leading a business. Join us to see how it works.