Leadership Development Planning for a Culture of Continuous Learning

How to build a culture of continuous learning by creating a leadership development plan for your high-potential employees.

By: Leadership Dynamics team


4 mins

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This article is part of our series on leadership development.

You want to ensure your organisation's leadership team is as effective as possible in order to reach performance targets. But then a member of the team either quits or the context of their role changes and they no longer have the competencies required to continue as they are.

It can take months to search for and hire a replacement that meets your specific requirements, meanwhile the role lies vacant or the leader remains and underperforms.

Do you wish you had done something about it sooner?

If there isn't someone ready at all times to step into a leadership role, the time spent waiting for a director or manager to train up or spent searching for an external hire could cost you in performance and value.

To ensure the long-term effectiveness of your leadership teams, your organisation has to:

  1. Keep the leadership pipeline healthy and diverse.

  2. Continually develop your current leaders to be ready for new challenges.

While a healthy pipeline of future leaders ensures the sustainability of the SLT, leadership development planning ensures your leaders are the best they can be at all times, so there are never any gaps in skills or drops in performance.

This article will discuss the benefits of building a culture of continuous learning with a leadership development program, whether you are anticipating the long-term needs of an ever-evolving business, or adhering to your value creation plan's investment timeline.


  • Why make a leadership development plan

  • Building a diverse leadership pipeline

  • Developing competencies and behaviours

  • Continuous learning and development

  • Leadership development and succession planning

  • Setting an example for the rest of the company

Why make a leadership development plan

When does leadership development planning come into play? Here are three scenarios where leadership-focused learning and development programs are key to ensuring leadership sustainability.

1. Developing high-potential employees

You are readying an internal employee to step up to the senior leadership team (SLT), in which case you need to have a programme of learning and development in place to make sure they have been building the required skills and experience in advance.

2. External hires

You are appointing external talent to the team who already has the required competencies. As the demands of a leadership role are continually changing, you need to maintain a level of high performance in your leadership teams, certain skills and behaviours may need developing and refining.

Note that it can take in the region of 3 months to find a suitable external candidate and 3 months to serve their notice, while the readiness of your potential internal hires depends entirely on how long it takes to achieve the competencies needed.

3. Developing existing leaders

Your business is entering a new phase of the value creation plan, and your leadership team no longer has the right mix of skills and behaviours to approach their new challenges and responsibilities. The performance of a business relies not just on a group of high performing individuals, but on how those individuals work together as a team.

Why build a diverse leadership pipeline?

The leadership pipeline needs to stay healthy, so you are always ready to fill vacancies – expected or not – with high-performing and diverse individuals who can complement each other's abilities.

Diversity is a key characteristic of effective teams. It's been proven that leadership teams made up of people from different backgrounds and with diverse skills, experience and behaviours perform better than those made up with similar people.

For example, a McKinsey study in 2019 found that executive teams in the top quartile for gender diversity and for ethnic diversity were 25% and 36% (respectively) more likely to have above-average profitability. 

A study published in Harvard Business Review in 2017 made the compelling case that cognitive diversity is even more important than physical diversity. It found that the more diverse the thinking styles on a team, the quicker they solved problems.

It makes sense. A C-suite that has the same functional capabilities will lack some other necessary skills. If they have the same level and type of experience, they will have no one to learn from and stay stagnant in vision. And if they display similar behaviours to each other, they will miss out on alternative ways of thinking, impacting creativity and innovation.

In terms of team dynamic, it's important to make sure that the qualities of different kinds of leaders complement and support one another, or it will lead to dysfunction and poor performance.

Developing competencies and behaviours

A learning and development programme can be targeted at both future and existing leaders. Feedback sessions and access to self-assessment tools will help them grow their self awareness and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

A clear understanding of their behaviours will not only help them identify their constructive behaviours (where they support others) but also their destructive behaviours (where they don't), and therefore where they will impact the dynamic of the leadership team.

Behaviours tell us what a person is likely to do in a given situation, no matter their experience. So while personality traits show us "who they are", behaviours tell us "how they act".

Our PACE behavioural assessment is based on our learnings about which people with certain behavioural profiles work well together. Take the test yourself for free to see a detailed analysis of your behaviours, and which other behaviours they complement.

While it is hard to develop behaviours in an individual, it is easy to identify people with the right behaviours and then develop their competencies to a leadership level.

Part of your succession plan

Development plans are a key part of an organisation's succession planning. When preparing for planned or unplanned leadership changes, you will need to:

  1. Find the 'gaps'. Identify and keep tabs on the skills, experience and behavioural requirements in your leadership teams.

  2. Find the 'plugs'. Seek out talented employees within your organisation with the potential to become effective leaders (see our article on how to manage succession planning for a step by step guide).

Then you will be able to build a personalised leadership development plan for your selected individuals.

To do this, we recommend evaluating their competencies and behaviours with data-driven people analytics tools. Behavioural assessments go deeper and correlate with performance better than personality tests.

Strategies for continuous learning and development

An effective leadership development plan will make use of a mix of different learning opportunities and methods, from self directed learning to in-person courses and mentorship programmes.

Linking potential leaders with more experienced experts, especially those who have worked or are working in the position they are aiming for, will give them targeted and actionable guidance.

1. Self-paced e-learning

Access to on-demand online courses can help build technical skills as well as introduce leadership concepts and techniques.

2. Continual professional development courses

Continual professional development (CPD) helps employees enhance their skills throughout their career. It can involve taking a training course, attending an educational event, or studying for the qualifications required to progress. 

A company can help steer a potential leader in the right direction by suggesting a roadmap of relevant courses.

Compared to self teaching online, this kind of formal learning can improve the specific skills or competencies that needs a focused in-person environment. A few days away from a desk can work wonders for a student’s focus.

3. Coaching and mentoring

While online learning, live seminars and training courses are fundamental to a good L&D programme, their effectiveness is amplified with coaching and mentorship.

Pair potential leaders with leaders who are strong in the competencies they are weak in, or let them shadow those who have hands-on experience in the target role and can show them the realities and unique challenges of the job.

4. Job rotations

Usually part of a formal policy, identifying a future leader and rotating them through temporary roles gives them a broad understanding of the business and new roles for a period of three to six months, often for a temporary period.

Improving your employee engagement

One of the objections to learning and development is that you are training employees so they can find better paid jobs elsewhere. However, if you are strategic about who you enrol onto a leadership development programme, you are giving them a clear path to promotion. This increases trust that their interests are being looked out for, and lets them engage in their career with you.

Choosing the right people to focus on is the hard part. Using people analytics tools to get a clear picture of somebody's behavioural profile will ensure you don't invest time and money in someone who is not suited to leadership.

Setting an example for the workforce

Change comes from the top. If you implement a culture of continuous learning and professional development in the leadership team, it sets an example for the rest of the organisation.

L&D takes time out of people's busy day-to-day, so it's easy to de-prioritise it to make way for short-term demands. If the organisational culture is centred around continuous learning, it makes it easier for those HR teams (or whoever is in charge of talent) who are building learning and development programmes to get buy-in from future leaders; so you can always have your high-performing individuals ready to take the reins.

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