Leadership development programmes as engines for transformation? Yes, when owned by the CEO!


The lifespan of a business is getting shorter. A major factor to this is our fast changing world, which more and more requires companies to adapt and constantly transform their business models. However, most business transformations fail. But why is that? That’s the vital question. This article focuses on a widely accepted reason for the failure of many transformations – the failure to adjust the “culture” of an organisation.

First off, we need to cover what we mean by culture. Culture is the behaviour of senior leaders or, more specifically, the head of an organisation in particular. Make no mistake, culture is very strong. To some extent, culture can overcome weaknesses in strategy and operating model. However, your old culture, (if bad) will eat your new strategy for breakfast” and, we’d add, “eat your new structures for lunch”. The only antidote to the virus of the old culture is leadership. And, this leadership must be the kind that creates a relentless counterbalancing push towards the new in who they are, what they do, and how they do it.

Changing culture, or behaviour, is hard work and does not happen on command. Leadership development interventions should, therefore, be an essential part of any business transformation. However, even when they are, they don’t always give the required results. A leadership development programme will help a business succeed in transformation when 5 conditions (laid out below) based on 3 “laws of behaviour change” are in place. These three laws are:

  1. People copy the behaviour of the senior leader(s).
  2. People will only learn new behaviour if they are convinced that it will help them be more effective and efficient.
  3. You cannot think yourself into new behaviour. However, you can behave yourself into new ways of thinking.


First (because it’s the most important): Rigorous selection of senior leadership

The bigger the change in culture and capabilities required to execute the new strategy and make a new structure work, the more unlikely it is that it can be achieved by the same leaders (the same CEO even) who have brought the business to where it is. On one hand, the current cohort of senior leaders might not be seen as credible and will thus struggle to create a movement. On the other hand, people’s capacity to change their thinking and behaviour is limited and no leadership development programme can compensate for that.

Hence, the bigger the change required, the more likely it is that a significant proportion of the leadership cadre will need to be changed, either from the outside or by removing senior leaders and replacing them from within. Rigorous leadership selection has the additional benefits of stressing the necessity of change at all levels and of showing the resolve of the CEO to make the change happen. These are important signals to the organisation that show that the “old” ways will no longer be tolerated.

Second: Appeal to the heart and the head, in this order

Once leaders have been selected and appointed, the expected impact of the leadership development intervention must be driven home in the hearts and minds of the leaders.

First appeal to the heart – create ambition. Make the role of the leadership development programme very visible and tangible – it is about creating a cohort of leaders that must lead to the business to success. The call has to be: “(y)our role as leaders is bringing to life – on the ground and through (y)our actions –  our purpose and vision, our new strategy, our aligned new operating model and our new ways of working.”  The programme is about business renewal for which you/we are responsible and accountable!

Then convince the head. The logic between the new strategy and the new behaviours/culture must be made transparent. The same must apply to the gap (the difference between old and new). The leadership cadre must have a very aligned picture of how the “new” will look and feel. The leadership development programme must be designed to create these insights and that alignment, and to make leaders and teams experience how the new ways of working actually result in business success, and make their lives at work more pleasurable.

Third: Stringent consequence management

HR must align all its systems so that new people join who bring the right capabilities and personalities and so that the old behaviour receives the stick and the new behaviour receives praise, recognition, money, training and support.

Fourth: The leadership development programme is about running the business

Too often, CEOs see a leadership development programme as an intervention that is limited to “training sessions”. To be successful, “training” is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success of Leadership Development in transformations. Instead, there needs to be a combination of facilitated away days, on-the-job coaching of leaders and teams weaved into co-creating sessions on purpose, strategy and business, and operating models. A frequently heard criticism of leadership development programmes is that the leaders have no time for them as they have to manage this new transformation whilst also managing the current business. However, a well designed leadership development programme is helping the chosen leaders do their job as if the future was already in place. The programme does not come “on top” of their jobs.

Fifth: The whole programme must exemplify the change

It’s very counterproductive when people hear about the need for a new culture, but observe that the business (and the transformation) is run with the old ways of working. People look for consistency and alignment. The whole transformation project should, therefore, be designed and run in line with the new required structure and culture. Whoever leads the transformation, how the journey is run, and how the organisation is involved should exemplify the new organisation and the new culture. Any misalignment will be spotted and will fuel the pulling force of the status quo or the natural cynicism against change.

Leadership development programmes are an essential ingredient of a successful transformation cocktail, but they require both skilful and courageous design and management. Given the integral link with strategy and culture, the CEO must be the landlord for the leadership development architects. It cannot be delegated.

Guy De Herde is Principal Partner of ELP. He previously was, amongst other, SVP for Leadership & Organisation Development and SVP HR Europe at Unilever.

Back to insights