Developing Mid-level Leaders for More Strategic Roles - It Takes More than New Skills

By Wanda J. Hayes, Ph.D., Senior Director, Learning & Organizational Development, Emory University

Wanda J. Hayes, Ph.D., Senior Director, Learning & Organizational Development, Emory University

When organizations align leadership development and talent management strategies, executive development is often the major focus.  Many organizations also invest in the development of their new front-line leaders to develop skills to manage others.  However, mid-level leaders are often overlooked.  Leaders at this level are typically in operational roles, balancing the priorities of their leaders with managing the workforce.  What is required for success at the next level requires additional skills and expanded ways of thinking. 

In the current environment, where unemployment is low and finding the right talent for higher-level strategic roles is difficult, growing talent from within the organization has never been more important.  Developing mid-level leaders allows organizations to retain their talent and the knowledge of, and relationships within, the organization. 

This was the challenge that Emory University faced three years ago.  To address the situation, theHR Learning & Organizational Development department set out to design a solution that would develop high-potential, midlevel leaders and improve the success of their transition when promoted to more strategic roles.   The result is the Emerging Leaders at Emory Program.

"Since implementing the Emerging Leaders Program at Emory, we have seen significant results in preparing the high-potential mid-level leaders for their next roles.  Program alumni have reported results related to skill development and broadened perspectives"

Closing the Competency Gap:

In determining areas of focus for this new leadership development program, it became clear – through surveys, interviews, benchmarking, and literature reviews– there were clear areas of competency that needed to be developed in order to be successful at the next level.  These included:

1. Developing Accurate Self-Insight

2. Coaching Managers

3. Communicating with Impact

4. Developing Strategic Relationships

5. Establishing Strategic Direction

6. Managing and Leading Change

7. Executive Presence

8. Developing an Organizational Perspective

Developing these competencies would require changes in both skillset and mindset.

Addressing Skillset:

To focus on the skillset, workshops, case studies, assessments, and simulations were designed for an 9-month program that includes a cohort of cross-institutional participants.  This is a similar approach to executive-level leadership development programs offered in the University – and offered in many organizations.  Workshops are held two days per month, with a focus on:

• Leading Self

• Leading Others

• Leading the Business

There is a focus on communication, political savvy, and ownership across all the workshops.   To increase self-awareness, 360-degree feedback assessment and personality assessments are utilized.  Internal executive coaches meet with participants and provide individual development planning sessions that are focused on the results of the assessments and professional and career goals.

Addressing Mindset (developing perspectives):

A significant emphasis of the new “Emerging Leaders” program is the focus on developing a different mindset – broadening the perspectives of the program participants (often referred to as “vertical development”).  There are several aspects of the program that were designed to focus on mindset.  These include:

Mentoring – Participants in the program are paired with alumni from the University’s executive leadership program.  Mentor-mentee matching is focused on broadening and stretching the participant’s perspective of the University and strategic leadership.  Thus, the matching ensures that mentors and mentees work in different school or division and have different problem-solving styles/perspectives (as demonstrated through personality assessments).  Mentoring allows the participants to build relationships with and learn from leaders in a different area of the organization, and the mentors provided guidance and support for development.  Mentors benefit from these relationships as well – stretching their own perspectives and increasing their engagement with the University.

Peer Coaching – The larger cohort is divided into small groups of five for peer coaching.  Like matching with the mentors, peer groups are designed to include participants from different areas of the organizations, and with diverse personality styles and demographics.  The peer groups allow them to build relationships, provide support for each other’s development, and hold each other accountable.

Leadership Exposure – “Leadership Lunches” are incorporated into the program. Senior leaders from across campus (e.g., Vice Presidents, Deans, Senior Vice Presidents, etc.) join the groups for informal luncheons.  The senior leaders share their perspectives on topics in the workshop, provide information about their areas of the organization, share their leadership journey, and answer questions from the participants.  In addition to broadening perspectives, these lunches provide exposure of the program participants to the leaders and vice versa.

Guided Reflection – Taking time to reflect has a tremendous impact on learning and incorporating “guided reflection” impacts the learner’s perspective.  Specific assignmentsare incorporated into the program to guide reflection related to leadership and leadership styles, as well as reflections on specific content.  Dedicated time to journal their reflections based on prompt questions is built into classroom days and encourages this behavior.  Reflections are also discussed with mentors and in peer group coaching sessions.  An end of program, the “Leadership Portfolio Project” requires participants to reflect on how they have incorporated their learning throughout the program, provide specific examples of how their skills and perspective have grown, and present their projects to their peers and their leaders.  During graduation, the participants are once again asked to reflect on the “one thing” from the program that had the most impact on their growth and share it with the graduation audience.

Application - Utilizing a learning transfer platform, Jubi, participants are engaged throughout the program with micro and blended learnings that are content focused through “Learn” activities.  Ranging from articles, podcasts, assessments, case studies, etc., participants are provided with additional content to broaden their perspective and opportunities for reflection.  The platform provides the opportunity for embedded applications with peer validation.  These “Do” activities ensure that participants are applying what they learned in the classroom sessions.  Further, “Inspire” activities allow for social networking and the establishment of a social community that encourages participants and engages with game mechanics.  The “Inspire” activities allow participants to encourage and/or appreciate program participants, share an inspirational story, or share thoughts and ideas.  Further, at any point, participants can start a discussion and share thoughts and ideas.


Since implementing the Emerging Leaders Program at Emory, we have seen significant results in preparing the high-potential mid-level leaders for their next roles.  Program alumni have reported results related to skill development and broadened perspectives.  Some of the most cited areas of improvement include:

• Decision-making

• Coaching ability

• Emotional intelligence

• Focus on strategic networks and partnerships

• Ability to deal with change

• Improved communication

• Increased self-awareness and confidence in their own leadership abilities

• Broadened perspective of University-wide issues

From a talent-planning perspective, of the 58 alumni from the first three cohorts, the University has seen:

• 88% retention rate

• 75% of the 12% who separated from the University did so for promotional opportunities at other institutions

• 43% were promoted at Emory

• 9% moved to a different school/division at the University

The success of the program continues, and the fourth cohort is currently participating in the program.

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