Blog Post

The Importance of Targeted Leadership Development Programs

By Karen J. Watai
May 22, 2018

In most organizations, there is a point in the promotion chain where the representation of people of color and women falters – you may think of it as a “bottleneck” or a “cliff” or a “glass ceiling.” Whatever you call it, it’s real and the organizations that are able to help their diverse talent navigate through this point will be the organizations that will both benefit from the contributions of diverse senior leadership and become employers of choice. As an addition to an organization’s overall D&I strategy, targeted development programs designed to address the underlying challenges faced by women and people of color can be a highly effective way to help break through this point.

Women and people of color face challenges when they are different from the leadership of their organizations. These challenges include prejudice and bias, added difficulty in developing relationships, and the propensity to be overlooked for key opportunities and promotion. I’ve had the privilege of working with organizations on highly-effective targeted programs designed to develop and retain their high-potential women and people of color. These organizations are benefiting from the increased engagement and contributions of this critical talent pool.

My experience leads me to recommend the following guidelines for creating effective targeted development programs.

  1. Enlist senior leadership support. In order to mobilize the organization and signal the importance of the program as a strategic initiative, engage and enlist senior leadership to sponsor and support the program. Senior leadership involvement will signal to the organization that developing diverse talent is a high priority. It will also signal to the participants that they are highly-valued and considered high-potential by the organization.
  2. Establish clear objectives and measures of success. Decide exactly what you want your program to cover and what you want to accomplish. Do you want to focus on career development or leadership development? Do you want to focus on building skills, knowledge, or business acumen? Do you want to help participants build relationships across the business and visibility with upper management? Do you want to empower individual career development, foster mobility, improve retention rates, or increase promotion rates? Your answer may be some or all of the above. Once you’ve decided on your objectives, determine the appropriate measures of success.
  3. Design the right selection process. Design the best process to select program participants given your objectives. You might consider a nomination process, an application process, or a process tied to your talent review system. A nomination process ensures that participants have the support of their management, which will be an important element if you are using promotions as your measure of success. An application process leads to identifying motivated individuals who may not be recognized by their management. Clear application requirements will help narrow the applicant pool to your desired demographic. A process tied to your talent review system will be as good as the underlying system. If there is systemic or individual bias, or other deficiencies in your system, then the selection of participants will reflect this. I suggest designing a selection process that has several elements working together to increase the probability of identifying the right people for your program and its objectives. For example, you might use a nomination system that allows people to nominate themselves or others. Consider your organization’s culture and dynamics to put together the best process.
  4. Design a curriculum for addressing real challenges, and create a safe space for discussion. Identify the real challenges faced by your people and then create a safe space to address them. Don’t shy away from tough conversations. Adopt a constructive mindset – focus on what each individual can do and then help them develop the skills and relationships that will help them succeed. Include individual coaching to help each individual address their unique circumstances and challenges.
  5. Provide ongoing support. Assign a strong program manager to oversee the program, monitor and measure participants’ progress, and provide ongoing support. Developing diverse talent is a long-term commitment. The challenges continue well past the program end date. Reorganizations and management changes can be particularly hard on people of color and women as they need to continually prove themselves to new people. A strong program manager can provide support through these challenges and help keep the organization focused on these high potentials.

Targeted development programs can be an effective addition to an organization’s D&I initiatives when well-designed and executed. Acknowledging the additional challenges faced by people of color and women allows organizations to be proactive and intentional in addressing them.

Karen J. Watai’s Biography

Karen J. Watai is the Founder and President of Welcome Change LLC, and the author of the Amazon best-selling book Lead Your Way – Practical Coaching Advice for Creating the Career You Want. Karen works with organizations and individuals to achieve results in the areas of leadership, career development, diversity, and inclusion. She has worked extensively with people of color and women to help them reach their full potential. Karen leverages her 30 years of business experience to provide practical and impactful advice. She holds an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, and an A.B. from Harvard University.

About the Authors

Karen J. Watai