Building Strong, Consistent Leadership at Scale

From the front line to the C-Suite, employers need great leaders. Most organizations struggle mightily to develop consistent, effective leadership at all levels. Brandon Hall Group research reveals three high-level reasons:

  • They lack an organization-wide leadership model for how leaders think and act.
  • They often conflate management skills with leadership.
  • They can’t effectively scale their leadership development.

The endgame is great leadership development at scale. Bob Rosen, founder and CEO of The Healthy Leader,says there are six critical factors to scalable leadership development:

  • Learning agility. The ability to adapt quickly is the next core universal capability. 
  • Psychological safety. Adaptive spaces that are safe for interpersonal risk-taking, being vulnerable and trusting colleagues to support new ideas and behaviors.
  • Diversity. Demographic shifts, diverse marketplaces and global teams will utilize diversity for rapid innovation, market growth and greater engagement.
  • Learning by doing. Shorter attention spans and pressures to perform will prioritize just-in-time learning — including abbreviated coursework, digital solutions, learning in teams, and the ability to practice skills in a safe environment.
  • Peer learning. Story-driven teaching by bosses, peers and subordinates will amplify real-life experiences, celebrate leadership lessons and foster greater collaboration and role modeling.
  • Blended learning. It will be critical to mix in-person and virtual instructor-led training with engaging online guided and self-paced channels. 

That is great insight and undeniably true. What is debatable, unfortunately, is whether leadership development should be conducted using one model for how leaders should think and act or multiple models based on the level of leadership.

I regularly speak with organizations that believe front line, midlevel and senior leaders require different leadership skill sets. Our research shows that 55% of organizations believe that developing business and management competencies are more important for leaders than what are often referred to as “soft” leadership skills, such as emotional intelligence, coaching and mentoring.

But the tide is turning. Developing an organization-wide leadership model tops the priority list for this year, according to our HCM Outlook 2021 Study. 

Top Priorities to Improve Business Impact of Leadership Development in 2021

Managers are authority figures; people follow their direction because they have to. People follow leaders because they want to, so there should be a clear distinction between management and leadership development.

Make no mistake, leaders do need business and management competencies. But those are separate from leadership competencies, which are not at all “soft” but essential and foundational. Having one set of leadership competencies provides a common base upon which other skills and competencies can be based and developed.

Take, for example, a major professional services organization I interviewed recently. The firm has a three-year senior management academy for employees on a path to become partners/owners. The second and third years of the program are focused on building their personal brands and business development skills — a strong business focus. But guess what comes first? One full year of leader training focused on increasing proficiency on a universal set of leader competencies that is also taught in lower-level development programs.

Universal leadership models differ somewhat from organization to organization, but more than 65% of respondents to our 2020 Impact of Leadership Development Study agree that these are core leadership behaviors needing development to drive post-pandemic business success:

  • Empathy, active listening and understanding others 
  • Leading during disruption
  • Perseverance and resilience
  • Collaborating inclusively
  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Recognizing the contributions of everyone
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Managing change

The other prerequisite to scaling leadership development is to pay far more attention to developing leadership competencies in front line and mid-level leaders — the ones who work most closely with individual contributors and therefore have the most direct impact on engaging and retaining talent.

Traditionally, organizations focused heavily on senior leaders and executives. But the trend in recent years has been to focus more on emerging leaders and that trend intensified in the wake of COVID-19. 

It’s hard enough to train an entire organization of leaders, let alone to do it with competing models. Multiple models are not scalable in even relatively small organizations, let alone global ones (not to mention that multiple models breed inconsistency).

Bob Rosen’s six factors for scalable leadership development — anchored by a universal leadership model used at all levels of the organization — are the keys to success in making current and future leaders successful.

-Claude Werder, Senior VP and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.