Successful Leader Development: A unique approach

By Isabella Valentini Sofia Hjort Lönegård

In today’s landscape of rapid change, increased expectations and scarcity of talent, the challenges for organisations are more complex than ever, especially at a leadership level where the impact of decisions is crucial. Comprehensive and repeated research illustrates that organisations which attract, motivate and develop the right people outperform those that do not⁽¹⁾⁽²⁾. But leadership development initiatives often fail to deliver the business value needed⁽³⁾ ⁽⁴⁾.  

It is a well-worn cliché that people are an organisation’s biggest asset, but there is a lost opportunity if that asset is not fully understood and considered in relation to the wider business context. So imagine the power of creating and delivering a bespoke leader development programme using deep insights from each individual within the organisation.  By understanding the individual and team dynamics, their strengths and weaknesses, drivers and motivations, and mapping this insight against strategic organisational goals, it is possible to create a unique and valuable solution that translates into improved business performance. 

The Partnership Impact 

Two organisations that are recognised as leaders in the fields of executive search and education have joined forces in an exciting new partnership that is transforming the impact of people development within organisations. Cranfield University (Cranfield), a specialist post-graduate university with an impressive track record in executive development supported by powerful industry links and Mercuri Urval (MU), a global executive search, leader acquisition and leader advisory firm, have developed a unique approach to maximise the success of leader development investment. This Partnership brings together exceptional expertise and experience to deliver on organisational leadership development objectives.  

By combining MU’s leadership assessment tools and diagnostic capability with Cranfield’s experience in designing and delivering world-class executive education, the Partnership offers the opportunity to achieve organisational goals and ambitions. This is achieved through the creation of executive development solutions which are uniquely customised by drawing directly upon cognitive data from each individual within the organisation, and mapping that data to the strategic organisational goals. This powerful combination enables leader development to be planned and delivered in both the current context of the organisation and in line with its future aspirations. 

People Insights that Power Organisational Success 

The Partnership creates a customised solution by understanding the organisational context and strategic objectives, aligning these with deep insights into the potential and the challenges of the organisation’s people, and drawing upon world-class expertise in leadership development.  

Through working with a unique combination of scientific assessment and proven excellence in executive learning, which informs and inspires the creation, delivery and evaluation of leadership development, the Partnership approach also surfaces insights and vital information that can: 

  • Identify trends, strengths and weaknesses within your organisation. 
  • Offer analysis of the cultural and organisational context. 
  • Clarify and establish the learning inputs and interventions required to achieve your goals. 
  • Create a common language and platform to build from during programme design and delivery. 
  • Design programme(s) that will deliver optimum results for your organisation and your people. 
  • Provide our programme delivery teams with invaluable insight into each cohort and individual they are working with.  
  • Support participant engagement and understanding during programme delivery. 
  • Provide insight for senior leaders and line managers. 
  • Evaluate and assess the impact of development. 
  • Identify individual and organisational successes, opportunities, strengths, weaknesses and next steps. 

Three Steps for Successful Leader Development 

Establishing the parameters for leader development is essential to successful outcomes.  These three steps, focused on the individual leader’s development, offer a strong framework for designing meaningful programmes that can support the individual and achieve the organisation’s desired outcomes. The Partnership approach can enhance, improve and amplify the outcomes and maximise the impact of the activities within each step. 

  1. Quantify the impact of development: Precisely tailor development towards specific outcomes. 
  2. Perform an individual gap analysis specific to the leader’s unique situation: Decide what development will achieve the required impact, and make sure it’s actually achievable within the organisational context. 
  3. Action the most important steps, and follow up systematically: Monitor activity and impact -measures long-term to ensure sustained focus and effort.  

Quantify the impact of development 

Effective leader development must be quantified beyond satisfaction measures, to determine if business value is created longer-term. The Partnership model can help formulate the best ways for individual leader development to be integrated into and aligned with organisational outcomes. For each leader, establish what they need to achieve, and how to measure it: 

  • What specific organisational result should the leader’s development achieve? 
  • Precisely how should the leader’s performance impact result(s), and when? 
  • What are the most suitable impact measures to assess the leader’s development? 

As there is no general or stereotypical leadership behaviour that ensures success, each impact measure will be unique to each leader and their context. They will also change over time as circumstances change. This requires effective decisions to be made about what impact to focus on, and for those decisions to be continuously reviewed and adjusted: 

  • What should the leader do which adds value to the organisation (tasks)? 
  • How should the leader work (behaviour)? 
  • What should the leader achieve (results)? 
  • Shorter-term objectives 
  • Longer-term objectives 
  • What organisational contribution (within and beyond their role) is required? 

Useful impact measures should be quantifiable and relate both to observed changes in the leader’s behaviour and the results of their team and organisation (for example, productivity, engagement, or retention). They should also be closely aligned to the creation of organisational value. This process is made easy with the Partnership assessment of each individual at the outset. Confidence in accurately predicting a return on development investment is increased when specific outcomes are set and measured. 

Perform an Individual Gap Analysis Specific to the Leader’s Unique Situation 

The Partnership method helps to establish a clear understanding of what impact should be achieved and how to measure it.  This is then assessed against the current organisational context to ensure that the desired impact is realistically achievable. The leader then needs to be guided to select the most effective development actions within that context. An individual gap analysis specific to the leader’s unique situation, capabilities and motivation should be agreed upon, documented and used for later follow-up.  

The aim is that the leader and their manager both clearly understand how to build on strengths, mitigate weaknesses and change things in the leader’s work system (e.g. changes to the role, tasks, KPIs, etc.) to achieve results.  

Selecting specific actions needed to close the gaps, that can be measured and are valuable to the individual, requires addressing these key questions: 

  • What action(s) is the leader able to do? 
  • What action(s) is the leader willing to do? 
  • What must happen within the organisational context to maximise impact of those actions? 
  • When will the action be completed (and what support is needed if any)? 
  • How can the leader’s work environment be adapted to ensure action success?  

Even if this gap analysis work is comprehensive in scope, the outcome should be carefully refined to pinpoint the most important actions, with a clear prioritisation over time. What should be done now, and what later. Focus on one thing at a time. 

Sustained leader development is achieved when a leader is willing and able to act on what is needed in an environment that facilitates repeated practice and change. Leaders must know how to change, be convinced about the need to change, and have the opportunity to change to improve their performance.   

To effectively transfer learning into their ‘real-world’ work context the work environment around your leader must also be in scope for development. 

Action the Most Important Steps, and Follow Up Systematically 

With the leader’s most important actions identified with an effective gap analysis, development can now commence. 

Leadership effectiveness is developed, not learned. Expert leaders don’t just know more than those with less competency. Their knowledge is organised differently, in structures that enable them to make better use of their knowledge, faster and ‘on the job’.  

The leader development plan is created and delivered using the insights from the Partnership process, with a focus on analysing the individual’s requirements and the context of the organisation.  Just as with the design stage, the delivery is also informed by the analysis not only of the individual but of their line manager, their team and their peers too.   

Experienced leaders develop in the context of their work situation by acting into new behaviours and they sustain these new behaviours by realising their impact on success. Efforts to aid and accelerate your leader’s development should focus on using information from current or prior experience to act differently.  

Effective development action is: 

  • Result-orientated: The leader must see the link between their effectiveness, the action, and the business result. Actions need to show a return greater than the effort to pursue. Actions must be relevant to the leader and focused on their situation. Focus on practical actions that will improve their results and enable their behaviours to change. Avoid excesses and distractions. 
  • Achievable, just: Actions should be reasonable, be realistic but stretching, and agreed with others who can credibly give feedback. Actions rooted in self-awareness to match each leader’s sense of purpose and motivation to learn will increase the chances of success. Incremental changes are more sustainable than revolutionary changes. To anchor new behaviours, leaders need to practice. Skills are acquired and expertise is built through repeated practice and experience. Avoid easy and avoid trying to do too much. 
  • Single action-focused: Planned achievements must be well-defined and focused. Actions should be measurable to make objectives clear. A small action is better than no action. Avoid vague objectives and try to not pursue more than one action at once. 
  • Short-term: Actions need to have a deadline to secure urgency.  They should be monitored and evaluated in an organised way to ensure they remain sound as conditions change. Use fact-based follow-up to keep development actions connected to impact measures. Avoid out-of-date goals and long-term dreams. 
  • Network-centric: It is a mistake to think that developing a leader is purely about the individual leader’s competencies. The full impact of a leader relates as much to the network power they can bring to bear on problems and opportunities as their skills and abilities. Leader development must focus on strengthening their network. Avoid only developing what is inside the leader’s head. 

The Partnership process includes real-time evaluation of the impact of the development programme, and is flexible to allow for adjustments and deviations from the plan as required.  Those delivering the development benefit from the insights of the individual analysis, and from the detailed understanding of the organisational context. This combination helps them assess improvement and offer feedback on the impact of the development. 

Leader Development Impact  

Leaders develop through focus, self-awareness, specific actions, extensive practice, leveraging their network, and continual effective feedback. They develop ‘on the job’ by building on personal experience that was earned in current or previous leadership tasks. 

Through the precisely tailored leader development interventions based on clear business impact measures that result from the Partnership methodology – that include systematic action plans and follow-up – it is possible for leaders to perform more effectively and deliver greater business value. 

As change at work is fast, leader development is ever more important. Effective development for each leader in your organisation will define your success. 

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university with world-class expertise, large-scale facilities and unrivalled industry partnerships that create leaders in technology and management globally. Cranfield School of Management is one of the oldest business schools in Europe and is globally recognised for its excellence in leadership development and our powerful industry links. Cranfield offers learning experiences drawn from our extensive portfolio of expertise and capability, from individual learning and open programmes to enterprise-wide customised and consultancy solutions.   

Mercuri Urval is a leading global executive search, professional recruitment and talent advisory firm operating in over 70 countries, with experts delivering thousands of Leadership Advisory, Leadership Assessment and Leadership Development services for clients each year worldwide. Mercuri Urval offers professional solutions with a thorough and evidence-based approach.  Quality-assured consulting projects and certified methodology combined with expert assessment and analytics tools ensure that the leaders selected using the Mercuri Urval method can take their organisation into the future.    


[1] Rob Desimone “What high performance workplaces do differently”, Gallup Workplace, Dec 2019. 

[2] Jack Zeneger “Great leaders can double profits”, Forbes, Jan 2015.  

[3] Claudio Feser, Nicolai Nielsen, and Michael Rennie “What’s missing in Leadership Development?”, McKinsey Quarterly, 2017, 

[4] Robert Kaiser and Gordon Curphy “Leadership development: The failure of an industry and the opportunity for consulting psychologists”, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2013, Vol. 65, No. 4, 294–302