Leadership Development for strategic change

The Situation

Our client is a high profile organisation providing adult education services. They are publicly funded but operating in an increasingly commercial arena. They have formulated a radical strategy to meet the new challenges in their sector. In assessing the capability of the organisation to execute the new strategy leadership at senior levels was identified as a significant weakness.

The organisation had an executive management team but also an extended leadership group comprised mainly of the top team’s direct reports. We find this arrangement a lot in organisations now. Often such groups lack focus and are unproductive and this extended group was struggling for a sense of purpose.

Working with the top team we developed a plan for a year long leadership programme involving both the top team and the extended leadership group. The aim was to build the leadership bench strength to begin executing the new strategy.

The Challenge

What was especially challenging about this assignment were the requirements to:

  • Tailor the programme around key strategic issues – making it directly relevant and applicable.
  • Avoid the development events becoming too task focused and losing the individual development agenda.
  • Achieve personal change with short (largely one day) development events.
  • Maintain continuity and involvement over a year’s programme.

The Programme

A brief summary of the year-long programme is:

Module 1 – Leadership and Me (1 day)

As well as launching the programme this module?s main goals were to:

  • help managers to understand what leadership means for them individually in their changing organisation;
  • to become more aware of their strengths, potential and development needs and to begin creating a development plan;
  • to set up Action Learning Groups which would run throughout the programme.

Module 2 – Leadership and Change (1 day)

Delegates applied robust models and techniques to the changes they were involved in. In particular they learned principles from the Tipping Point approach to change via a computer based change simulation. Having a common language and approach to leading change has proven a great asset in the last year.

Module 3 – Leadership Directions and Decisions (2 days)

This was the longest offsite part of the programme and addressed an identified need for managers to set clear direction and objectives and to make quicker, better decisions and stick to them! We used experiential and very active methods in the module so that delegates could feel the pressure and ambiguity which makes real world decisions challenging.

This module also provided an opportunity for honest live feedback among members of the Action Learning Groups. This raised the bar in terms of Support and Challenge among the delegates and accelerated the pace of personal change.

Module 4 – Leadership in the Strategic Context (1 day)

By this stage in the programme the main action strands in executing the new strategy were in full flow. This module gave delegates a chance to stand back and relate their behaviour as individual leaders to its impact on colleagues, their teams and the organisation.

We used the Cape Cod method to facilitate the programme with delegates working in small groups and as a plenary group of 30. It was probably the least “popular” of the development events. However, it raised the real issues of leadership in times of uncertainty and insecurity in a way which triggered a lot of action afterwards.

Module 5 – Consolidation, Networking and Influence (1 day)

This was a chance for delegates to review their progress as leaders, to set themselves some new goals and to celebrate a year of learning together. It also focused on a key set of skills which the strategic change process had highlighted: Influencing and Networking.

Action Learning Groups

To provide continuity in this long development process we set up Action Learning Groups of 5/6 people from diverse backgrounds. There was a lot of debate about whether having a director in each group would inhibit the others. Overall the benefits of including them far outweighed the costs.

The groups had two half day facilitated meetings and one which they self facilitated during the programme. Several groups continued beyond the end of the modules.

How To Succeed With This Type of Development

A lot of leadership development fails to make an impact because it is too remote from the day to day realities of business life. This programme succeeded in part because it was closely linked to a strategic change which would affect everyone. Other critical success factors included:

  • Top management active sponsorship is key.
  • Some process, in this case Action Learning Groups is necessary to link the programme over time.
  • Activities focusing on personal challenges have more impact than purely conceptual learning. Whole person not just the head. Having said that these delegates are in the learning business so our models and techniques were thoroughly tested!
  • Having a large group go through learning events together is challenging but fantastic for building relationships and networks.
  • The key for designing and facilitating this type of programme is to balance clear structure and direction with letting the process evolve.


This was a very challenging assignment. There was very little margin for error and great pressure to get it right first time. Thanks to a strong client relationship and our working at the top of our game it worked. The client has more sophisticated, flexible and confident senior leaders. Maybe as important is the creation of a powerful leadership community. They are well placed to support and challenge each other in a period of huge continuing change in their organisation.


See the Centre for Creative Leadership‘s Human Resource Planning Whitepaper relating effective leadership to revenue generation, productivity in the face of threats to employee morale and engagement.