How Do You Develop Leaders On A Budget?


Here’s a problem we hear frequently from CEOs: My new managers aren’t prepared to lead.

You probably experience this all the time. You promote a talented individual because of his or her technical skills, but that doesn’t mean they know how to lead others. Someone may be a great salesperson, engineer, accountant, or marketer, but put them in charge of a team and suddenly their technical expertise doesn’t matter as much as their ability to influence others.

Leaders everywhere experience this problem, but it’s especially acute for executives within small and mid-size companies who don’t have an in-house leadership development program. Assuming you can’t hire a talent development department tomorrow, how can you turn your individual contributors into exceptional managers, or prepare your managers for executive leadership, quickly and on a budget?

We have four ideas that can fit most budgets:

  1. Start a book club.
  2. Practice focused mentoring.
  3. Use team meetings for learning and discussion.
  4. Invest in targeted education programs for select leaders.

Before You Start, Consider This:

We’ll elaborate on these ideas below and share some resources, but first, a comment about the conditions that are necessary for any leadership development program to be effective. At a high level, three conditions are necessary. First, senior leadership has to make people-development a priority. Being a people-centered organization is one of our building blocks of culture, and it requires investment. Stop reading now if you, as the leader, aren’t prepared to put some elbow grease into this.

Second, it takes accountability. True leadership development cannot happen overnight. Whatever plan you pick, make sure you build in an accountability mechanism.

The final condition is that leadership development strategies must align with your organization’s purpose and values. You can’t teach new managers to delegate work, or to have difficult conversations with kindness, unless it is modeled in their experiences with more senior leaders.

Now, we can return to our four strategies for leadership development on a budget.

#1: Start A Book Club

Leaders are readers. In almost every remarkable company we study, we find the leadership team makes good use of their library card. Develop your own in-office library of great books and encourage people to read your favorites. Better yet, pick a book of the quarter and buy a copy for every manager. Hold discussions at staff meetings or over a brown-bag lunch. Ask people to test drive the book’s ideas and report back on what worked, and what didn’t. Just pick your book carefully and read it first, so you can make sure the book’s tone and topic align with your company’s culture and current needs.

Need a list of recommendations to start? Check out our curated list of books for leading change, or our book list for women in leadership.

Leaders are readers. Develop leadership in your organization with a book club; ideas via @ValuesDriven.

#2: Practice Focused Mentoring

While the book club can be done at the group or organization-wide level, focused mentoring can help new leaders develop in a one-to-one context. Pair an experienced and admired manager with the new kid on the block, then give them a focused topic for their conversation. For example, ask them to talk about how they prioritize their time, how they offer feedback that gets heard, or how to best “manage up” within the organization.

This focus is important: it ensures that your new managers are getting insight into the leadership topics that most matter to you. Just by asking the question, you raise the importance of the topic. Having a focused mentoring session also means you can play matchmaker, selecting the best senior managers for specific topics. Alternatively, you can establish longer-term mentoring relationships (start with a three-month commitment) and offer different topics for focused conversation on a biweekly basis.

#3: Use Team Meetings for Learning And Discussion

If you gather your team for a weekly or monthly staff meeting, you’ve got a ready-made leadership development event on your calendar. As little as 15 minutes can be enough to get started.

How? Consider using short videos (10 minutes or less) followed by 10 minutes of conversation. Plan questions to start the conversation and help your team apply the concept to their work. Close by asking how they’ll test the concept in the coming week.

For example, new managers might benefit from this 3-minute video on coaching team members to find their own answers. (Bonus: this video comes with discussion questions.) Watch the video with your team, then ask people to answer the questions together, applying the concepts to your company’s work.

Where can you find good, short videos that address leadership development? Try TED Talk’s business section, or our video series from the Return on Values Initiative.

#4: Invest in Targeted Education Programs For Select Leaders

For the right person, it’s worth spending some money. Investing in leadership development pays big financial dividends: it illustrates your commitment to the individual leader, and to people-centered culture, and exposes your company to valuable ideas from outside your four walls. Short-term solutions like books and videos are great starts, but they aren’t transformational experiences. If you really want to grow a manager into an exceptional leader, or prepare them for senior roles, it will take a longer term, concentrated investment.

Finding the right program takes work. Our advice? Don’t make a decision based on the name of the school or the title of the program. Take a good look at the curriculum, so you find one that builds true leadership capacity at multiple levels (self, one-on-one, team, and organizational) and aligns with your organization’s culture and your team member’s work schedule.

We’re partial to our own program, the executive master’s in values-driven leadership, but there are thousands of degree and non-degree programs to consider.

Start Somewhere

No matter what approach you take to leadership development, start now. Leadership capacity cannot be developed overnight, and every day you delay is a day of wasted potential. Investing in the development of your organization’s emerging leaders is likely to decrease turnover, increase retention and engagement, and improve your company’s bottom line. Plus, the more gifted your team members are at leadership, the less time you’ll have to spend on solving their problems.


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