As I think about the emerging talent in the organization where I work and my role in helping develop our next leaders, I find myself recommending different formal leadership programs for different kinds people at different points in their journey. That realization got me thinking about the myriad formal leadership programs, their common elements, expected outcomes for each element, and how to choose the best next one. I believe that investing resources in people is a crucial step in successful succession planning.

Question: What if we invest all this time and money in them, and they leave?

Response: What if we don’t, and they stay?


Here are some common elements of various leadership journeys and the expected outcomes:


Many formal leadership programs are run as a cohort that starts with some sort of retreat or intensive time together. The expected outcomes for the retreat are usually to have individuals start forming relationships with each other, get comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities, and think of themselves as part of a team. It also sets up the cohort to mark the intentionality of the journey ahead. This is much more than just another training.

Personality Typing

Almost every formal leadership program I’ve experienced included a personality typing either in the form of exercises at the retreat or a deep dive that continued through the length of the program. Sometimes they are overall personality typing systems like Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or the Enneagram, and sometimes they are more about personality at work like DISC and Strengthsfinder. In my experience, the purpose of learning more about our own personalities and those of our teammates is the foundation for the leadership work ahead. It lays the groundwork for better understanding of communication styles, motivation for behavior, and work styles that delivers dividends well beyond the program.

Mentor or Coach

When I am recommending a formal leadership program to a new professional, depending on their path, I usually try to steer them to a program that has a mentorship or coach built in. Having a mentor or coach available during the leadership program is a huge value-add. Since mentors are almost always volunteers, programs that use a mentor are often less expensive than those that use a coach. Another difference is that because coaching is usually time-bound, the coaching ends when the program ends. With a program that uses mentors, that mentoring and the relationship often extends beyond the timeframe of the formal program itself.

Having a mentor was super-valuable – I wouldn’t have done it unless someone was making me; it would have stayed on my “to-do” list….I got more tools that I could use–literal tools like O-CAT.

~Natalie Walker, Rain City Rock Camp for Girls


Having a deliverable like a group project, capstone or some combination thereof, is another common element of formal leadership programs. Sometimes there is a public presentation of the project as the culmination of the program. For emerging leaders, this might be the first time they’ve experienced creating a project or deliverable outside of their work or school assignments. The amount of work that goes into these projects depends on the program and the motivation of the individual or teams involved. My experience is that it’s always far more work with many more rewards than I anticipate at the start of the journey. While the project may seem to be the deliverable, and often it is of real use to the participant or their employer, the intended outcome is usually more about learning project management or how to lead effectively with colleagues towards a common goal.

The final capstone project was an ideal way to complete the year of self-reflection. It was an opportunity to look back over my notes, to relive the discussions, and to recall the moments of discovery about myself and my leadership style.

~Amber Cox, Pikes Peak Library District

Coursework, Homework, or Common Read

Every formal leadership program I’ve ever participated in has always had homework. Sometimes that homework is related to the project, sometimes it’s coursework on change or leadership principles, sometimes it’s workshops related to personal development, sometimes it’s interviewing other leaders, and sometimes it’s the group reading the same book together with facilitated discussion. Sometimes it’s all of the above. Either way, it can be intense in terms of time and energy required. I think it’s good to go into the experience with the understanding that this work is kind of like going back to school. Not only does it take time away from work and home, I get out of it what I put into it.


Without fail, every formal leadership program I’ve participated in has acknowledged the completion with either a certificate or final ceremony. Change management best practices remind us that recognition of a change helps reinforce the change. Having a final ceremony or extending a certificate at completion is a great way to help a participant understand that by going through a formal leadership program, something has changed. Them.

The Leadership Academy was validation I was on the right path – that I had the tools I needed to succeed… it helped me hone my voice and own my personal sense of power.

~Penny Hummel, Penny Hummel Consulting

How to Choose:

Understanding the elements and expected outcomes for each type of formal leadership program can help when choosing or recommending what’s next. Interviewing alumnus is another way to learn the differences and find a good fit. Cost and time commitment are other variables to consider. I’ve listed some various leadership programs I know of or have participated in as a guide. It’s not intended to be a complete listing, just a taster for what’s out there and what’s possible.

Some Types of Formal Leadership programs:

Local community – run by Chamber of Commerce or municipality

e.g. Leadership Jefferson County

The program begins with a two-day orientation & retreat in September and concludes with a graduation dinner in June. Monthly one-day forums expose participants to government, economics, health care, education, arts, justice system, business, regional issues, and human services.

Professional Association 

e.g. PLA Leadership Academy 

The centerpiece of the PLA Leadership Academy is a dynamic in-person event, three and a half days of interactive education and colleague networking that will offer thought-provoking lectures and breakout discussions.

A Local Employers Council

e.g. Intentional Leader: An Executive Leadership Program

A four-part learning model including Strategic Mastery, Results Mastery, Self Mastery, and Interpersonal Mastery. Nine months.

Peer Learning Groups

e.g. Table talks Peer Learning and Support

These are monthly discussion groups based on job type, 3 hours each session for 6 months. There is a curriculum with a theme each month.