Designing an effective leadership development program

Leadership development program

To fully tap the potential of their emerging professionals, firms need to emphasize mentoring, independent study, and other tools to build future leaders

Due to rapidly shifting demographics and an expanding economy, firms that provide architectural, engineering, and other professional design services are struggling to fill a growing leadership vacuum. The good news is that an effective leadership development program can help firms fill this vacuum while creating tremendous opportunities for baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials.

Shifting demographics

In the US, over 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day. These boomers are increasingly focused on the immediate need for future leaders; however, within the design professions there is a dramatic shortage of fully qualified successors. The recession of the early 1990s and subsequent economic cycles caused many future leaders to leave the profession, and the Great Recession of 2008 diluted another generation of talent.

The silver lining is increased access to significant leadership opportunities for emerging professionals. To capitalize on this opportunity, current leaders must facilitate leadership development through targeted training, active coaching, and refinement of their own leadership and coaching skills.

Younger boomers and Gen Xers are at the front of the line to assume leadership responsibility; however, their careers have typically focused more on getting and doing the work and less on running a business, thereby limiting leadership development opportunities. These dedicated and seasoned professionals must quickly fill an expanding leadership gap, making training an urgent priority.

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, for the first time emerging professionals in the 20-35 age range represent the largest segment of the workforce. The survey indicates that two-thirds of millennials expect to leave their current jobs within the next few years. Inadequate leadership training is cited as a primary contributor to this lack of loyalty, as 70 percent of millennials are dissatisfied with how their leadership skills are being developed.

A new emphasis on leadership training

When evaluating an existing position or a potential career change, millennials rank "opportunities to progress and become leaders" as one of the most important factors. In addition, those currently positioned to assume leadership roles recognize the immediate need to acquire new skills. It is clear that leadership training must be an integral part of a firm’s talent retention policy. Current leaders need to identify a stable of candidates with leadership potential and implement a training strategy that accelerates their advancement.

Design professionals are, by nature and by training, critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.

Designing an effective leadership development program should include independent study, collaborative learning, mentoring and coaching, and professional training. When combined, these learning approaches form the basis of a lasting leadership development culture.

Independent study

Design professionals are highly educated and adept at learning, but a design-focused education is typically void of advanced leadership theory. Over the past few decades, a considerable body of leadership research has developed. Emerging leaders must invest the time to assimilate the information that is most applicable to their situation and apply what is learned to daily practice. Elevating a complex skill set like leadership requires periods of intense personal exploration.

Independent study opportunities include:

  • Establishing and prioritizing a list of research topics
  • Writing and referring to a “lessons learned” outline for each topic
  • Drafting six-month study plans with specific learning objectives and a detailed schedule
  • Committing to reading an article every week and a book every month
  • Studying and modeling leadership behavior from within and outside the design community

Collaborative learning

Operating a business, leading clients and project teams, and designing and delivering responsive projects require effective collaboration. Seasoned professionals have learned to be highly skilled collaborators, and millennials enthusiastically embrace collaboration. These characteristics can be leveraged to bring about potent learning experiences that foster a sense of urgency, comradery, healthy competition, and incentive to achieve common goals.

Collaborative learning opportunities include:

  • Seeking diversity in learning partners
  • Establishing collaborative learning relationships at all levels of the organization
  • Demanding both personal and group accountability
  • Creating opportunities to write with others, e.g. marketing materials, project briefs, business letters, articles, blogs
  • Attending lectures and training seminars with learning partners and discussing conclusions
  • Sharing articles and books with colleagues, and discussing how concepts relate to current workplace situations
  • Seeking advice from colleagues related to specific leadership issues that arise in daily practice
  • Debating difficult issues
  • Developing collaborative forums and groups of learning partners outside of your organization

Mentoring and coaching

Mentoring and coaching, while complimentary and essential components of an effective leadership development program, serve distinctly different purposes. Mentoring focuses on building relationships through general professional development dialogue. It is essential for long-term personal and professional growth, and for ensuring a healthy professional culture. Coaching focuses on specific performance improvements within a fixed time frame that achieve targeted results, initiate change, and cultivate undeveloped potential.

It is clear that leadership training must be an integral part of a firm’s talent retention policy.

Mentoring and coaching opportunities include:

  • Providing mentors, coaches, and trainees with adequate process training
  • Recognizing that even the most senior current and future leaders will benefit from mentoring and coaching
  • Creating committees that evaluate individual needs, solicit coaching requests, and establish mentoring pairings and coaching assignments
  • Identifying individuals that would benefit from external professional coaching
  • Requiring written coaching plans with clear objectives and timelines
  • Conducting regularly scheduled mentoring/coaching meetings

Professional training

There is a broad range of options available in the field of leadership training. Executive-level courses in leadership and related fields of study are offered by well-respected institutions. Also, there are numerous seminars, webinars, and training videos available. Consultants with extensive architecture, engineering, or construction (AEC) industry experience are uniquely qualified to provide relevant training with immediate and long-term results. Professional training is an efficient, focused and cost-effective learning approach.

Professional training opportunities include:

  • Developing long-term relationships with AEC industry strategic advisors
  • Attending institutional executive courses like Harvard’s Professional Development Programs
  • Leveraging online tutorials, webinars and training videos including industry-specific providers
  • Conducting and attending in-house workshops
  • Working with professional executive coaches
  • Retaining one-on-one professional career coaches for emerging leaders

A bright future for leadership

As leaders develop and communicate a compelling vision of the future, they motivate others to implement that vision. The same can be said of design professionals, but within a different context. Design professionals are, by nature and by training, critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. Given the opportunity to acquire practical knowledge and develop crucial behavioral skills they can fill the leadership vacuum by becoming inspirational and effective leaders.

Aspiring leaders can register for Leadership Institute 2016, a one-day leadership training event to be held on November 18.

This story originally ran in the AIA Practice Management Digest for September 2016.

Stephen Epstein is a strategic advisor with Strogoff Consulting, Inc. Prior to joining Strogoff Consulting, Stephen was a principal with an award-winning national architectural firm where he led the financial, operations, human resources, and project performance initiatives. He can be reached at stephen@strogoffconsulting.com or 310-694-7991.

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