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Training leaders is not just about moving employees up your ladder. Effective leadership education can build culture, foster diversity and inclusion, and even influence company reputation.

The far-reaching potential of such training is what five panelists discussed during From Day One’s conference last week exploring the role of HR in building authentic leaders.

Belinda Grant-Anderson, VP of talent development at AT&T, said leadership training programs can reinforce the behaviors that companies want at the center of company culture, and for her team, diversity and inclusion is central.

Internal leadership training can also have effects outside a company’s doors, said Cheryl Smith, who leads talent development at Xerox, where she trains leaders who will shape the company’s reputation. “We wanted to show that we’re committed to early-career folks. You know, Xerox isn’t just your father’s company,” Smith said. “One of the things that I did was to create an early-career, leadership-development program to win the hearts and minds of those who are earlier in the workforce, and turn them into internal ambassadors for the company’s future.”

In fact, leadership development can start even earlier, before a young person enters corporate life. For Melissa Kilby, executive director of United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up, whose programs have involved 75,000 young women in 125 countries, leadership training is about equipping young women with a strong identity they can take into the workforce. “We are striving for equality, and I know many of the young women I work with want to see that in their workforces, but we also know that they may have challenges along the way, so how can we prepare them for that?”

The panelists agreed that to build effective training programs, organizations must first identify their goals. And for most, success is evaluated against specific metrics. Grace Berman, the senior director of learning and development at DaVita, the global kidney-care company, said identifying business metrics is the first step in her program design.

Leadership-training experts in conversation, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Melissa Kilby of Girl Up, and Laurie Rebholz of Citigroup. Bottow row, from left: Grace Berman of DaVita, Belinda Anderson of AT&T, and Cheryl Smith of Xerox (Image by From Day One)

What kind of metrics? For Laurie Rebholz, the head of global leadership and performance solutions at Citigroup, one quantitative goal is to increase representation of marginalized groups at all levels of the company. “If you think about how women and minorities are moving up the pipeline more slowly, that also means we’re reaching them from a development perspective more slowly,” she said. “We rebuilt the entire ecosystem in the lens of democratization.”

AT&T’s Grant-Anderson said strategic business goals are front and center, along with key qualitative outcomes, like the culture-creating behaviors they want to encourage. To support women of color and Black and Latinx leaders, her team trains managers to mitigate and confront biases. “We made sure that our supervisors are actually educated around those cultural issues, those corporate issues, so that they understand the gaps and that they’re undergoing some learning along with that individual.” Once leaders understand how to work toward a trust-based relationship, she said, they can move from mentor to advocate to sponsor.

Before bringing participants into leadership programs, managers should get a baseline assessment of their competencies, the panelists said, in order to measure how much progress they’ve made after the programs wrap up. That will help determine whether the company’s business goals have been met, but leadership-training programs must also serve participants’ needs and their professional goals.

AT&T asks participants what they want to gain from the programs, and Citigroup gives learners as much control as possible over how they engage with programs of their choosing. At Xerox, Smith said her program aims to expand participants’ overall career potential, even if it’s not with Xerox. “We want these chosen leaders to have broader careers than they would otherwise have if you were just sitting in your department,” Smith said. “So the design that I selected has a lot of executive visibility. It’s intense, but very purposeful.”

The mode of delivery also matters. Some panelists said their organizations have moved from in-person to virtual classrooms so workers can still benefit from leadership education during the pandemic, but Grant-Anderson’s team strived to give the virtual training a community flavor. In-person training had become cost-prohibitive for AT&T before the pandemic, so the organization had long been delivering leadership training online. “But what we found during Covid is that people needed people,” she said, “and they needed that connection and they needed to be able to speak with each other.” So to better serve their workforce’s needs, her team transitioned from delivering entirely self-directed study to educating small online cohorts of about 20 people each.

Rebholz and Kilby say they have successfully used blended delivery structures, including live virtual classrooms, self-directed study, and social-learning platforms. Multi-format delivery makes it easy for global organizations like Girl Up and Citigroup to deliver interactive experiences across time zones.

The age of future leaders should also be taken into account, the group said. DaVita’s self-directed leadership training, which includes a leadership podcast and their self-directed SPARK program, has been especially embraced by early-career employees.

Kilby said Berman’s team is ahead of the curve, that social-learning platforms in particular are effective and even preferred by young, digitally native professionals who enter the workforce looking for an employer that is invested in their future.

The panelists recommended using post-training measurement to evaluate the success of leadership education. Smith’s team tracks employee achievements, like new roles and stretch assignments, and Rebholz and Berman recommended surveying both participants and their managers to quantify the effects.

“Three months after the program, for some select core programs,” Berman said, “we will send out a survey to the participant as well as their manager and ask them similar impact questions to determine if they actually applied what they learned, if their skill has increased, and to what degree was the learning intervention responsible for that increase.”

But just like program goals, success evaluation must have a softer side. Learner experience must also be considered—do participants actually believe there is value in the program? Grant-Anderson asks participants how willing they are to recommend the training course to their peers, and Kilby’s team directly involves future leaders in making improvements to the programming. She put it this way: “We build with our leaders so we’re building for them.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.