What is HR's role in leadership development?

April 7th, 2022

Leadership development is a crucial piece of our work in HR. We typically think of it as a series of learning programs, experiences, assignments, and relationships that help an individual develop the skills they need to move into higher and higher levels of leadership.

But what is leadership? Are there different kinds? How do we prepare people with the skills they need when they need them? Let's explore what leadership and leadership development mean in today’s world of HR.

Leadership skills for managers, strategic leaders, and beyond

As people move up through the levels of leadership, they need different kinds of skills at different moments. First-time managers, for example, need skills like delegation and communication, but don’t necessarily need to focus on high-level business strategy; that comes later. Thinking about skills as staged or tiered—and deciding what skills are needed when—is a critical part of creating successful leadership development.

At all of these levels, leadership skills tend to be highly social, so experiences that put learners into dialogue with eachother, such as cohort-based learning and capabaility academies, tend to be especially effective for fostering the development of these "soft skills." But the specifics of the learned concepts will depend on on the leader's career stage.

Training for leaders at all stages

The first (and often most challenging) step in leadership development is the transition from individual contributor to first-line manager. For many, it is a major career transition because it represents a shift from being someone who succeeds through their own effort to one who succeeds through the success of others. This is where our work starts in leadership development and it’s critical that we have programs in place to support these new leaders.

As people move up the leadership ranks, they typically move from a team leader to a leader of multiple teams to a functional leader and eventually to a business or business unit leader. As this evolution occurs, people need more and more skills in the business itself. First-level leaders need to focus on day-to-day management skills, while mid-level leaders need a strong influx in traditional leadership skills.

Executives, meanwhile, use all the skills they’ve acquired, plus an increased focus on strategic thinking and planning.

Qualities of effective leadership development

Leadership is much like a sport: it takes constant training and feedback to succeed. People learn through stretch assignments, mentor relationships, job shadowing, team projects, internal and external training, and rotational assignments. But every organization is different. Look for or develop programs that have models, assessments, and development programs that work for your culture and industry.

Also keep in mind that leadership skills change over time. As companies become flatter and more team-centric, skills in customer relationships, relationship management, and working within a network are more valuable than ever. Traditional “top-down” leaders still have a place, but more and more companies now realize that they need leaders who can lead in the network and in times of ambiguity and change. This kind of leadership demands different skills: things like experimentation, Agile project management, and learning to start and grow new initiatives rapidly.

What is a typical leadership development budget?

Companies typically spend $2,000-15,000 per year per employee on leadership development (depending on level), so it’s important that we budget for this effort. Because managers account for 22% of total revenue, any investment in this area is likely to pay quick dividends. It will also improve teamwork, employee engagement, retention, and more, as effective management has been proven to be a key factor in all of these.

Our work as HR professionals in assessing, coaching, and developing leaders is a critical part of what we contribute to the growth of the company as a whole. To do it well, we need to plan ahead and keep ourselves trained and up-to-date on best practices. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been many interesting shifts in the learning and development industry, and high-quality digital solutions for leadership training have become an increasingly popular option.

Bottom line: strong leaders set the tone for a strong organization, and HR has a central role to play in making sure that leaders at all levels, from managers upwards, have what they need to help their teams—and the business—thrive.


Want to read more on effective leadership development strategies, particularly for remote and distributed teams? Check out a new report from Josh Bersin Academy co-creator Nomadic, Why the Future of Learning Is Instructorless. In it, they explore how the most effective––and most scalable––leadership development is instructorless, with interesting data from a study they did with Citi. It's full of great insights into how people learn, particularly when it comes to the soft skills necessary for leadership today. Download your free copy now!